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MONETARY POLICY V. FISCAL POLICY:
RISKS TO PRICE STABILITY AND THE ECONOMY

HEARING
BEFORE THE

SUBCOMMITTEE ON MONETARY
POLICY AND TRADE
OF THE

COMMITTEE ON FINANCIAL SERVICES
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
ONE HUNDRED FIFTEENTH CONGRESS
FIRST SESSION

JULY 20, 2017

Printed for the use of the Committee on Financial Services

Serial No. 115–34

(
U.S. GOVERNMENT PUBLISHING OFFICE
WASHINGTON

29–453 PDF

:

2018

For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Publishing Office
Internet: bookstore.gpo.gov Phone: toll free (866) 512–1800; DC area (202) 512–1800
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HOUSE COMMITTEE ON FINANCIAL SERVICES
JEB HENSARLING, Texas, Chairman
PATRICK T. MCHENRY, North Carolina,
Vice Chairman
PETER T. KING, New York
EDWARD R. ROYCE, California
FRANK D. LUCAS, Oklahoma
STEVAN PEARCE, New Mexico
BILL POSEY, Florida
BLAINE LUETKEMEYER, Missouri
BILL HUIZENGA, Michigan
SEAN P. DUFFY, Wisconsin
STEVE STIVERS, Ohio
RANDY HULTGREN, Illinois
DENNIS A. ROSS, Florida
ROBERT PITTENGER, North Carolina
ANN WAGNER, Missouri
ANDY BARR, Kentucky
KEITH J. ROTHFUS, Pennsylvania
LUKE MESSER, Indiana
SCOTT TIPTON, Colorado
ROGER WILLIAMS, Texas
BRUCE POLIQUIN, Maine
MIA LOVE, Utah
FRENCH HILL, Arkansas
TOM EMMER, Minnesota
LEE M. ZELDIN, New York
DAVID A. TROTT, Michigan
BARRY LOUDERMILK, Georgia
ALEXANDER X. MOONEY, West Virginia
THOMAS MacARTHUR, New Jersey
WARREN DAVIDSON, Ohio
TED BUDD, North Carolina
DAVID KUSTOFF, Tennessee
CLAUDIA TENNEY, New York
TREY HOLLINGSWORTH, Indiana

MAXINE WATERS, California, Ranking
Member
CAROLYN B. MALONEY, New York
´ ZQUEZ, New York
NYDIA M. VELA
BRAD SHERMAN, California
GREGORY W. MEEKS, New York
MICHAEL E. CAPUANO, Massachusetts
WM. LACY CLAY, Missouri
STEPHEN F. LYNCH, Massachusetts
DAVID SCOTT, Georgia
AL GREEN, Texas
EMANUEL CLEAVER, Missouri
GWEN MOORE, Wisconsin
KEITH ELLISON, Minnesota
ED PERLMUTTER, Colorado
JAMES A. HIMES, Connecticut
BILL FOSTER, Illinois
DANIEL T. KILDEE, Michigan
JOHN K. DELANEY, Maryland
KYRSTEN SINEMA, Arizona
JOYCE BEATTY, Ohio
DENNY HECK, Washington
JUAN VARGAS, California
JOSH GOTTHEIMER, New Jersey
VICENTE GONZALEZ, Texas
CHARLIE CRIST, Florida
RUBEN KIHUEN, Nevada

KIRSTEN SUTTON MORK, Staff Director

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SUBCOMMITTEE

ON

MONETARY POLICY

AND

TRADE

ANDY BARR, Kentucky, Chairman
ROGER WILLIAMS, Texas, Vice Chairman
FRANK D. LUCAS, Oklahoma
BILL HUIZENGA, Michigan
ROBERT PITTENGER, North Carolina
MIA LOVE, Utah
FRENCH HILL, Arkansas
TOM EMMER, Minnesota
ALEXANDER X. MOONEY, West Virginia
WARREN DAVIDSON, Ohio
CLAUDIA TENNEY, New York
TREY HOLLINGSWORTH, Indiana

GWEN MOORE, Wisconsin, Ranking Member
GREGORY W. MEEKS, New York
BILL FOSTER, Illinois
BRAD SHERMAN, California
AL GREEN, Texas
DENNY HECK, Washington
DANIEL T. KILDEE, Michigan
JUAN VARGAS, California
CHARLIE CRIST, Florida

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CONTENTS
Page

Hearing held on:
July 20, 2017 .....................................................................................................
Appendix:
July 20, 2017 .....................................................................................................

1
33

WITNESSES
THURSDAY, JULY 20, 2017
Bernstein, Jared, Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities ..........
Leeper, Eric M., Rudy Professor of Economics, Indiana University, Bloomington ....................................................................................................................
Levy, Mickey D., Chief Economist for the Americas and Asia, Berenberg
Capital Markets, LLC ..........................................................................................
Selgin, George, Director, Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives,
The Cato Institute ................................................................................................

7
6
4
9

APPENDIX
Prepared statements:
Bernstein, Jared ...............................................................................................
Leeper, Eric M. .................................................................................................
Levy, Mickey D. ................................................................................................
Selgin, George ...................................................................................................
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL SUBMITTED

FOR THE

RECORD

Davidson, Hon. Warren:
Chart entitled, ‘‘Federal Debt as % of GDP’’ ..................................................
Chart entitled, ‘‘The ‘Official Plan’ to ‘Balance the Budget’ Projected
Annual Deficit Spending’’ .............................................................................

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49
64
74

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MONETARY POLICY V. FISCAL POLICY:
RISKS TO PRICE STABILITY
AND THE ECONOMY
Thursday, July 20, 2017

U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES,
SUBCOMMITTEE ON MONETARY
POLICY AND TRADE,
COMMITTEE ON FINANCIAL SERVICES,
Washington, D.C.
The subcommittee met, pursuant to notice, at 9:34 a.m., in room
2128, Rayburn House Office Building, Hon. Andy Barr [chairman
of the subcommittee] presiding.
Members present: Representatives Barr, Williams, Huizenga,
Pittenger, Love, Hill, Emmer, Mooney, Davidson, Tenney, Hollingsworth; Moore, Foster, Sherman, Green, Kildee, and Crist.
Chairman BARR. The Subcommittee on Monetary Policy and
Trade will come to order. Without objection, the Chair is authorized to declare a recess of the subcommittee at any time.
Today’s hearing is entitled, ‘‘Monetary Policy v. Fiscal Policy:
Risks to Price Stability and the Economy.’’
I now recognize myself for 3 minutes to give an opening statement.
Today is not the first time we have seen a breaching of the line
between monetary and fiscal policy. Unfortunately, Congress has a
long history of forcing the hand of the Federal Reserve to accommodate its profligate spending.
However, following the 2008 financial crisis, the Federal Reserve
needed no prompting by Congress to pursue policies that are accommodating Washington’s unsustainable fiscal policies and distorting the allocation of credit in our economy.
As Renee Haltom and Robert Sharp explained, ‘‘Prior to 1951,
the Fed’s monetary policy was effectively determined by fiscal policy.’’ That is, the Fed formally agreed to hold interest rates down
to facilitate the Treasury’s financing needs during World War II.
This policy ended with the Fed Treasury Accord of 1951 enabling
the Fed to focus solely on monetary policy objectives.
Next came the Interest Adjustment Act of 1966, which required
the Fed to reduce interest rates through various channels. But to
the dismay of many in Congress, the Fed delayed action on this authority knowing that such actions threatened monetary policy independence.
With more arm-twisting by Congress, the Fed would go on to
purchase agency debt in the 1970s, mainly through Fannie Mae,
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2
the Export-Import Bank, and even a $117 million loan to the
WMATA to build the Metro in Washington, D.C.
In those days, the Fed was more resistant to political attempts
to force it to interfere with fiscal policy. It recognized the limits of
monetary policy and the economic damage that follows from using
the Fed as a slush fund for individual interests.
Today’s Fed has done a 180, initiating on its own several rounds
of quantitative easing that dramatically increase the balance
sheet’s size in considerable part by paying excessive interest on reserves to fund massive purchases of mortgage-backed securities.
Why does this matter? On the one hand, our unsustainable fiscal
policies threaten price stability. When governments cannot pay
their bills, they are prone to leaning on their monetary authorities
for accommodation. On the other hand, the Fed’s foray into credit
accommodation, masquerading as monetary policy, only deepens
American’s distrust in their government.
Under our Constitution, a Congress that is accountable to voters
decides how much and where to spend. A Federal Reserve that has
taken on that authority by itself weakens the independence of monetary policy, accommodates our unsustainable fiscal policies, and
distorts markets.
A full 8 years out of recession and America’s typically resilient
economy has yet to fully rebound. A more accountable and disciplined monetary policy would go far to get us back on track.
The Chair now recognizes the ranking member of the subcommittee, the gentlelady from Wisconsin, Gwen Moore, for 5 minutes for an opening statement.
Ms. MOORE. Good morning, colleagues, and good morning to our
esteemed panel. I just can’t wait to delve into this conversation. Although the committee has had several hearings on Fed Reserve
policy during and post-crisis, my thoughts of this are on the record.
I have just listened to our distinguished Chair talk about the sad
kind of dippin’ into our policies here, and yet, we have complained
continuously about economic growth.
And basically saying the Fed should have stayed out of the business of trying to right our economy and they have supported
contractionary fiscal policy here in Congress and then complaining
about the Fed’s policy to try to help stimulate the growth. I’m
sorry, I just don’t get it.
How can you have any credibility about being pro-growth in our
economy and then saying the Fed should stay out of it, when what
we are doing on this side of the capitol is calling for government
shutdowns, defaulting on the debt, cutting food stamps during a recession, cutting PELL grants so our kids can have an education,
cutting unemployment benefits, and other countercyclical safety
net programs, slashing budgets, cutting things like Medicaid, causing 32 million people to be uninsured.
Now it is just curious, people, that for some reason this Congress
is talking up the economy despite the job creation numbers that
are the same, just slightly down from President Obama.
Also, I have asked previous witnesses—and I want to see what
today’s witnesses are going to say—if any of them thought raising
rates during the recession would have been a good policy.

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They didn’t wonder what you were going to say. If you want to
see where Republicans want to take the country, look at Kansas.
The State was a right-wing Koch-brother economic utopia, and it
is a mess because of it, with stunted economic growth and credit
rating downgrades.
I am hoping to flesh out some of this stuff with the witnesses
here today. Thank you, and I yield back.
Chairman BARR. The gentlelady yields back.
The Chair now recognizes the gentleman from Ohio, Warren Davidson, for 2 minutes for an opening statement.
Mr. DAVIDSON. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thanks for holding
this important hearing. Before serving in Congress, I owned, operated, and expanded manufacturing companies in Ohio.
As a businessman, I knew firsthand the uncertainty and that fiscal and monetary policy have substantial consequences for small
businesses on Main Street. Companies are reluctant to trust the
Federal Reserve or Congress to steer our country in the right direction.
During the great recession, the Federal Reserve took bold steps
to manage the crisis. They moved on with mobile rounds of quantitative easing and unconventional asset purchases.
By purchasing trillions of dollars in Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities, they have kept long-term borrowing costs
low and enabled the U.S. to finance massive debt while distorting
asset prices, pension funds, and created even more weakness in our
banking system.
As Chair Yellen has indicated in her testimony, the Fed will
move forward with normalization of its balance sheet, but in many
ways the Fed’s monetary policy has accommodated irresponsible
fiscal policy by Congress. We are on a collision course with a fiscal
crisis. As economist Herb Stein said, ‘‘If something can’t continue,
it will eventually stop.’’
The fiscal challenge before us is to grow our way out of this debt
crisis. Deficits do matter. While our national debt is not the sole
responsibility for the slow economic growth we will highlight in
this hearing, it is certainly a factor. To bring true long-term
growth, Washington must move regulatory, fiscal, and monetary
policy in the right direction.
The Federal Reserve needs to unwind its large and unconventional balance sheet and return to normal monetary policy. Congress must act swiftly with sound fiscal policy that promotes
growth and does not bankrupt America. I look forward to hearing
from our witnesses, and I yield back.
Chairman BARR. The gentleman yields back.
Today, we welcome the testimony of first, Dr. Mickey Levy. Dr.
Levy is the chief economist for the Americas and Asia at Berenberg
Capital Markets, LLC. Previously, he served as the chief economist
for the Bank of America and Blenheim Capital Management.
In addition to various corporate roles, Dr. Levy advises several
U.S. Federal Reserve banks. Currently, his research focuses on
U.S. and global economic and macroeconomic topics.
Second, Dr. Eric Leeper is a Rudy Professor of Economics at Indiana University at Bloomington. His research is focused on fiscal

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and monetary policy analysis and the theoretical and empirical
study of their interaction.
Before becoming a professor of economics at Indiana University,
he worked for 8 years at the Federal Reserve in Atlanta and in
Washington, D.C., and currently is a research associate with the
National Bureau of Economic Research. Dr. Leeper earned his doctorate in Economics from the University of Minnesota.
Third, Dr. Jared Bernstein is a senior fellow at the Center on
Budget and Policy Priorities. He served as the chief economist and
economics advisor to former Vice President Joe Biden. He also was
the executive director of the White House Taskforce on the
Middleclass and was a member of President Obama’s economic
team.
He has worked for the Economic Institute and the U.S. Department of Labor. Dr. Bernstein’s research focuses on many subjects,
including Federal and State economic and fiscal policies, income
equality, and financial and housing markets. Dr. Bernstein earned
a Ph.D. in social welfare from Columbia University.
And finally, Dr. George Selgin is currently a senior fellow and
the director of the Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives
at the Cato Institute. He also is a professor emeritus of economics
at the University of Georgia. He specializes in monetary history,
macroeconomic theory, and the history of monetary thought.
He earned his B.A. in economics at Drew University, and his
Ph.D. in economics from New York University.
Each of you will be recognized for 5 minutes to give an oral presentation of your testimony. And without objection, each of your
written statements will be made a part of the record.
Dr. Levy, you are now recognized.
STATEMENT OF MICKEY D. LEVY, CHIEF ECONOMIST FOR THE
AMERICAS AND ASIA, BERENBERG CAPITAL MARKETS, LLC

Mr. LEVY. Chairman Barr, Ranking Member Moore, and members of the subcommittee, I appreciate this opportunity to speak on
providing my views on monetary and fiscal policies. Both monetary
and fiscal policies have gone off course and need to be reset.
Sustained, unprecedented monetary ease has failed to stimulate
the economy. Aggregate demand has actually decelerated since—
nominal GDP has decelerated since the Fed instituted QE3.
Fiscal policies have resulted in dramatic increases in debt, but
they really haven’t addressed some of the key structural factors
that are undercutting economic performance. So both monetary and
fiscal policies need to be reset, and they both involve significant
risks that is their paths right now.
While alarming government debt projection, say by the CBO, focused attention on the future, future concerns are becoming today’s
realities. The allocative effects of the government’s current spending programs and our inefficient tax system are harming current
economic conditions.
I fully understand the frustrations about the economy, the sizable pockets of persistently high unemployment, the low wages,
and the weak trends in productivity that have all contributed to
lower potential growth. We all want better performance.

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But the issue is, how to achieve it. As a wealthy nation, we are
misdirecting resources through fiscal policy and relying on monetary policy for the wrong objectives. The reality is, monetary policy
cannot create permanent jobs. It cannot improve educational skills.
Monetary policy cannot permanently reduce the unemployment of
the semiskilled or raise productivity or boost real wages.
Yet all too frequently, observers urge the Fed to ease monetary
policy, or more recently to delay taking away the excessive ease
that has stimulated financial markets, but hasn’t stimulated economic growth. The Fed’s $4.5 trillion portfolio and low interest
rates reduce budget deficits, but this is temporary.
Look at the CBO’s forecast. And that temporary reduction in
deficits encourages undesirable fiscal maneuvers and contributes to
the Congress’ delays in addressing fiscal challenges. It involves
very high risk and it really does jeopardize the Fed’s independence
and its credibility.
The Fed must continue to normalize monetary policy by increasing rates judiciously. Note that the recent rise in rates since December 2015 has had no negative impact on the economy. And it
must proceed with its plan to begin unwinding its massive portfolio, although I think the Fed should move more aggressively than
their strategy suggests.
The Fed must step back from its policy overreach, including the
Fed needs to fully unwind its mortgage-backed securities holdings,
$1.7 trillion—the largest holder in the world of mortgages. It serves
no economic purpose. Just think about it.
The mortgage market is functioning just fine. Housing prices are
booming. Housing is going up. Why is the Fed in this strategy of
allocating credit?
Having said that, the need for fiscal policy—and I know this is
a money and banking committee—but the need for fiscal reform is
much, much more pressing. The entitlement programs—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—are well-intended and they are important programs for the government and for American citizens,
but their persistent spending increases stemming from their flawed
structures have clearly impinged on spending for other programs
including infrastructure, job retraining, education, and research
and development.
This in and of itself, the misallocation of resources, adversely affects current economic performance. It hurts productivity, it constrains wages, it reduces job opportunities for many working age
people, and it lowers potential growth. And I might note these entitlements are the primary source of rising debt projection.
So I know my time is running out. Congress faces two paths. It
can take one of two. It could avoid reforms, which would mean reinforcing continued disappointing economic growth, allow large
pockets of underperformance and labor markets and slow wages to
persist. This would generate mounting reliance on income support
programs and place more strains on the government.
Chairman BARR. The gentleman’s time has expired, but just
quickly finish the thought.
Mr. LEVY. Okay. My thought, alternatively, the only other focus
is the Fed can pursue meaningful and fair fiscal reforms. And by
fair, improve the structures of these programs while maintaining

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their intent. That would allow more allocation of resources toward
government programs that would really enhance productive capacity. Now is the time to act.
[The prepared statement of Dr. Levy can be found on page 64 of
the appendix.]
Chairman BARR. Thank you. Thank you, Dr. Levy, and we will
get more testimony from you in the questions and answers.
Dr. Leeper, you are now recognized for 5 minutes.
STATEMENT OF ERIC M. LEEPER, RUDY PROFESSOR OF
ECONOMICS, INDIANA UNIVERSITY, BLOOMINGTON

Mr. LEEPER. Chairman Barr, Ranking Member Moore, and subcommittee members, thank you for inviting me to talk with you.
The title of this hearing, ‘‘Monetary v. Fiscal Policy,’’ frames the
issue in an unfortunate way. The title harks back to the unproductive Keynesian monetarist debates of the 1960s and 1970s.
As I hope my comments make clear, a more constructive way to
think about this is as monetary and fiscal policy. This is not merely
a semantic point, it is fundamental economics. Basic economic reasoning tells us that monetary policy actions always have fiscal consequences.
Let’s start with something routine. The Federal Reserve raises
the Federal funds rate in order to reduce inflation. But this isn’t
the end of the story. A higher funds rate tends to raise all interest
rates, including those on government debt. So interest payments on
outstanding debt rise.
Now fiscal policy comes into play. Those higher interest payments require higher taxes or lower expenditures in the future to
service the debt. The message is to successfully reduce inflation,
tighter monetary policy necessarily requires tighter fiscal policy at
some point. That fiscal response is essential for the Fed to be able
to control inflation.
But what happens if the fiscal response is not forthcoming because the fiscal authority never adjusts taxes or spending? Well,
bondholders will see their interest receipts rise, but don’t anticipate
higher offsetting taxes.
They feel wealthier and demand more goods and services. Higher
demand raises prices, counteracting the Fed’s original intention to
lower inflation.
Appropriate fiscal backing for monetary policy is critical for the
Fed to achieve price stability. What I have described arises naturally from a fiscal policy that aims to stabilize the government debt
GDP ratio. What is important is that the private sector understands and believes that the fiscal response will eventually take
place.
Of course when debt levels are low, the changes in debt service
and therefore taxes are modest. Debt service has also been modest
during the past decade because interest rates have been extraordinarily low.
The fortuitous fiscal effects of low interest rates, however, may
be coming to an end. This committee has heard previous testimony
about the process of monetary policy normalization, but there is an
important fiscal component to normalization that I want to highlight.

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Here is a little accounting exercise. The market value of gross
Federal debt is now a bit higher than nominal GDP. If interest
rates on government bonds rise from current levels to 6 percent,
roughly the average in the post-World War II period, interest payments will rise over time by 5 percent of GDP. That is nearly a trillion dollars.
Debt service now consumes about 10 percent of Federal expenditures. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, at its post-war peak, debt
service was 20 percent of expenditures, but then the debt GDP
ratio was below 60 percent. Evidently, interest rate normalization
carries substantial fiscal implications.
I end by pointing to recent data that underscore the need to look
at monetary and fiscal policy together. Short-term interest rates
have been below 1 percent for a decade.
Over that period, bank reserves increased by a factor of 52, yet
inflation by any measure has averaged less than 2 percent since
2008. Meanwhile, long-term Treasury yields have been trending
down, suggesting that markets don’t expect inflation is going to
pick up.
How can this happen? When massive growth and bank reserves
hasn’t created inflation because banks happily hold idle and safe
reserves whose yield exceeds those in the Federal funds in the
short-term Treasury markets. But here is another fact with which
you might be familiar. Gross Federal debt has doubled since 2008.
Why hasn’t this been inflationary? In a phrase, bond market pessimism. During the financial crisis, there was a worldwide flight to
safety. Investors had an insatiable appetite for Treasuries. That
appetite continues today, ensuring demand absorbs the expanding
supply of bonds.
The question for monetary policy is what happens to inflation
and the Fed’s ability to control it when the thirst for safety is
quenched? The answer hinges on the fiscal response. Thank you.
[The prepared statement of Dr. Leeper can be found on page 49
of the appendix.]
Chairman BARR. Thank you.
Dr. Bernstein, you are now recognized for 5 minutes.
STATEMENT OF JARED BERNSTEIN, SENIOR FELLOW, CENTER
ON BUDGET AND POLICY PRIORITIES

Mr. BERNSTEIN. Chairman Barr, Ranking Member Moore, thanks
for the opportunity to testify today. My testimony stresses the following points on monetary and fiscal policy, including important
interactions between the two.
First, to most effectively pursue monetary policy in the interest
of American families and businesses, our central bank must maintain independence from the political system.
While Congress should monitor the Fed’s pursuit of its dual mandate, full employment at stable prices, it must scrupulously avoid
any micromanaging of the Fed’s work in meeting its mandate.
In this regard, the CHOICE Act, associated with this committee,
creates serious economic risks. By aggressively rolling back necessary financial oversight, the Act raises the likelihood of return to
underpriced risk bubbles, bailouts, and recession.

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Title X of the Act, which establishes procedures by which Congress would micromanage the interest rate-setting policy of the
Federal Reserve, threatens to reduce the central bank’s essential
independence and hamstring its ability to respond to economic
downturns and financial market excesses.
This is the strongest caution I can offer you today. To pursue
Title X would ultimately politicize the Federal Reserve in ways
that would deeply undermine its effectiveness.
A remarkable aspect of the Title, especially from a Congress that
claims it wants to reduce unnecessary regulation and red tape, is
that it demands strict adherence to a policy rule, spelling out in detailed language a specific formula that the Fed’s interest rate-setting committee must follow or face burdensome regulatory scrutiny.
This requirement is unworkable. If the FOMC strays from the
‘‘reference formula’’ in the Act, their rule change would be subject
to nine separate burdensome requirements, many of which are onerous enough to make deviation from the rule impractical.
For example, within 48 hours of a policy meeting, the Fed Chair
must, ‘‘include a function that comprehensively models the interactive relationship between the intermediate policy inputs.’’
She must, ‘‘include the coefficients of the directive policy rule
that generate the current policy instrument target and a range of
predicted policy future values for the instrument target if changes
occur in any’’—and then some.
And these are just two of the nine requirements. I have been
studying monetary policy for decades, and I am not sure I know
what some of these requirements mean. Again, this is an astounding read from a Congress that claims to be invested in reducing red
tape and complex regulation.
My testimony also explains why a rule-based policy must be contrary to Title X applied with discretion. There are many variations
to Taylor-type rules, all of which differ from the reference formula
in the bill.
There are two unobserved variables in the rule, the equilibrium
real rate of interest and the output gap. And I assure you economists are far from agreement on the optimal values to use in rulebased monetary policymaking.
Figure two from my testimony shows what I mean. Using realtime data, the Title X rule hits its low point in the fourth quarter
of 2009 when it recommended a Federal funds rate that was negative 1.8 percent. Plugging in variants that mainstream economists
endorse, however, generates a range of results from about negative
1 percent to about negative 7 percent.
Turning to fiscal policy, the other subject of today’s hearing, in
2013 Fed Chair Ben Bernanke made the following statement to
this committee, ‘‘Although monetary policy is working to promote
a more robust recovery, it cannot carry the entire burden of ensuring a speedier return to economic health. The economy’s performance both over the near term and the longer run will depend importantly on the course of fiscal policy.’’
There are at least three reasons why Mr. Bernanke was right
about this. First, once the Federal funds rate hits zero, the Fed’s
firepower is constrained.

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Second, monetary and fiscal stimulus attack different parts of
the problem in weak demand constrained economies. Monetary
stimulus works largely through lowering the cost of borrowing, but
people hurt by high unemployment may have too little income to
take advantage of low interest rates.
To the extent that fiscal stimulus puts money in people’s pockets,
say through infrastructure programs, direct job creation, temporary
tax cuts, increased safety net benefits like ramped-up unemployment insurance, people are more likely to take advantage of low
borrowing costs and to signal to investors through increased consumer demand that they too should take advantage of low rates.
Third, monetary and fiscal policies interact in recessions to boost
fiscal multipliers. My testimony shows that before Congress prematurely pivoted to fiscal austerity, the one-two punch of fiscal and
monetary policy was effectively pushing back on the Great Recession and slow recovery that followed.
I then document the high costs of fiscal austerity, including over
a million jobs lost and the downshifting of GDP levels and growth
through scarring effects. Thank you.
[The prepared statement of Dr. Bernstein can be found on page
34 of the appendix.]
Chairman BARR. Thank you, Dr. Bernstein.
And Dr. Selgin, you are now recognized for 5 minutes.
STATEMENT OF GEORGE SELGIN, DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR
MONETARY AND FINANCIAL ALTERNATIVES, THE CATO INSTITUTE

Mr. SELGIN. Chairman Barr, Ranking Member Moore, and subcommittee members, in October 2008 the Federal Reserve began
paying interest on bank’s reserve balances with it. My testimony
today concerns the economic consequences of that step.
The Fed was originally supposed to start paying interest on
banks’ reserves in 2011 to reduce the implicit tax burden reserve
requirements placed on them. But as the 2008 crisis worsened, the
Fed received Congress’ permission to start paying interest on reserves immediately.
Its goal then was not to relieve banks of a required reserve burden, but to get them to hoard reserves it was creating by its emergency lending so that lending wouldn’t result in increased bank
lending and inflation.
To make interest on reserves serve this role, the Fed set the rate
of interest on reserves above comparable market rates, where it
has kept it ever since. The Fed thereby ignored the law’s stipulation that the rate was, ‘‘not to exceed the general level of shortterm rates.’’
As an anti-stimulus measure (note well) interest on reserves
worked as expected. In fact, it worked so well that within weeks
the Fed did an about-face. Now it hoped to stimulate the economy
by purposefully creating large quantities of fresh bank reserves. All
told, the three subsequent rounds of quantitative easing created
another $2 trillion of additional bank reserves.
Yet because reserves still paid an above-market rate of interest,
banks just kept on accumulating them as they had done, and as
the Fed had wanted them to do, before Q.E. when it was worried

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about inflation. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over
again but expecting different results, then I fear it must be said
that some officials at the time were not quite in their right minds.
Although the Q.E. stimulus was disappointingly small, the Fed’s
actions had other big consequences. By acquiring trillions of dollars’ worth of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities and borrowing from banks to pay for them, the Fed dramatically increased
its footprint in the U.S. credit system.
Before interest on reserves and quantitative easing, bank reserves were less than 1 percent of bank deposits. Bank loans, in
contrast, were almost 100 percent of bank deposits. Today, bank reserves are 20 percent of deposits and loans are just 80 percent of
deposits. Before interest on reserves in Q.E. the Fed’s assets were
7 percent of commercial bank assets. Today, that figure is 27 percent.
Commercial banks are expected to invest the public’s deposits
productively, subject to regulatory guidelines. Central banks are
not. Central banks are tasked instead with regulating the scale of
commercial bank lending and deposit creation. According to the
Fed’s own guidelines as set forth in a pre-crisis publication, it is
supposed to, ‘‘Structure its portfolio and activities so as to minimize
their effect on credit allocation within the private sector.’’
The reason the same guidelines state for this is, ‘‘that hardearned experience shows that, in general, market directed resource
allocation fosters long run economic growth.’’
In fact, there is vast economics literature on what is known as
financial repression. The term refers to the harmful consequences
of policies, mainly in less developed countries, that divert savings
from commercial banks to central banks and thus from more to less
productive uses. That literature blames such policies for much of
the world’s poverty.
The Fed’s current operating system, with its above-market interest rate on reserves and bloated balance sheet, is very financially
repressive. That is one reason for the continuing post-crisis productivity slowdown.
Yet the same system, far from at least improving basic monetary
control, has prevented the Fed for 5 years running from meeting
the 2 percent inflation target it set in 2012.
Distinguished subcommittee members, Chairman Barr, a central
bank that cannot control inflation, and especially one that cannot
make inflation go up, is a central bank that is unable to perform
its fundamental duties.
To close, the Fed’s new operating system based on above market
interest on reserves has had disastrous consequences. Yet despite
these results, the Fed’s current normalization plan would keep
much of the current arrangement in place. I hope for the general
public’s sake that Congress will not let that happen.
[The prepared statement of Dr. Selgin can be found on page 74
of the appendix]
Chairman BARR. Thank you, Dr. Selgin.
And the Chair now recognizes himself for 5 minutes.
I will stay with you, Dr. Selgin, I appreciate your testimony, particularly about interest on excess reserves and the associated risks
with that as a primary monetary policy tool.

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Dr. Selgin, what are the risks and downsides and the
distortionary impacts of replacing conventional open market operations with interest on excess reserves as the primary monetary
policy tool for setting the Fed funds rate?
Mr. SELGIN. The original means, before the crisis, by which the
Fed managed the Fed funds rate was through open market operations, where it would adjust the quantity of reserves available to
banks to change the rate at which they would lend to each other
overnight, which is what we are referring to when we speak of the
Federal Funds Rate.
That system worked while reserves were scarce and so long as
it was worth more to banks to lend funds than to hold on to them
as excess reserves, and it worked very well. It was the system that
brought us the so-called great moderation of the 20 years roughly
beginning in 1985.
In the new system, because banks under it aren’t tempted to use
their reserves but instead hold on to whatever comes their way,
monetary tightening or monetary control consists of the Fed’s adjustment of these administered interest rates, the interest rate on
excess reserves and, lower down, the overnight reverse repo rate.
The problem with that system is, first of all, as I mentioned, the
Fed has not succeeded using it in gaining the control of inflation
we normally would want central banks to be able to exercise. It
simply has not been able to meet the 2 percent target that it specified. And that is partly because it is hard to do that when you can’t
get banks to lend more by creating more reserves.
Under this arrangement, you have to rely on the so-called portfolio balance effect and other effects that work through tightening
banks’ demand for reserves or loosening that demand rather than
by increasing reserves or changing the supply and having banks
lend more or less.
But the other problem is that this new system requires that
there be a substantial amount of excess reserves in the system.
And that means that the Fed is, as I said, having a much larger
role in credit allocation, and that means less productive use of credit.
Central banks are not designed to invest funds productively.
They cannot make any loans to businesses, farmers, or consumers.
So their portfolio is necessarily limited and that means that the
use of funds, when they are commandeered by the Fed, is not going
to be as helpful for economic growth.
Chairman BARR. Thank you.
And Dr. Levy, in Dr. Bernstein’s testimony he made the argument that a Fed reform that has been proposed by this committee
would involve over-regulation, over-regulation, in this case, of the
Fed.
When I think of over-regulation, I think of Washington over-regulating actors in the private economy. I don’t think of Washington
trying to keep entities that are part of the Federal Government accountable.
And so regulating and holding accountable the Federal Reserve
to a strategy-based policy that is transparent and accountable, I
don’t view that, as Dr. Bernstein does, as over-regulation.

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Can you comment on that? And also, can you talk about the
Fed’s extension into credit policy as potentially contributing to the
risk of fiscal inflation, and what the unconventional policies the
Fed may need for the political independence of monetary policy?
Mr. LEVY. Yes. On regulation, it is the role of your committee to
supervise the Federal Reserve. And I think the general thrust of
the Financial CHOICE Act provides you more ability to properly
supervise the Fed.
In response to issues about the Fed has to respond within 48
hours, the Fed has hundreds upon hundreds of very capable staff
members who have already delved into all these issues.
They have already written up before the meetings their approaches to the issues. So I don’t think it is asking too much of the
Fed to respond to questions.
With regard to rules-based, you want to make the rules-based
flexible and allow flexibility to the Fed to deviate from those rules
under abnormal circumstances, such as during the financial crisis,
but then use that as a framework for explaining to the committee
why it deviated. So you want a rule, but you want it to be flexible.
Chairman BARR. Thank you. My time has expired. I appreciate
your responses to those questions.
And the Chair now recognizes the distinguished ranking member
of the subcommittee, Congresswoman Gwen Moore, for 5 minutes.
Ms. MOORE. Thank you so much. This is just the most amazing
opportunity of my lifetime to be able to sit and listen to people with
the level of expertise that all of you have brought here today, and
I have more questions than I have time.
But let me start out with you, Dr. Bernstein, because I think you
are sort of outnumbered here on the panel of experts. You said in
your testimony that there was a high cost of fiscal austerity, and
I would like you to flesh that out a little bit for us. You said that
at the end of your testimony.
Mr. BERNSTEIN. Right. My testimony documents the impact on
GDP growth, on jobs, on unemployment from a premature pivot to
fiscal austerity endorsed by Congress starting around 2010, particularly in 2012, 2013 to be very specific.
Congress’ failure to renew the payroll tax holiday took something
like $120 billion out of the economy at a time when the recovery
was still slow to take off. And this led to the loss of about 1.5 percent of GDP, maybe around a million jobs, that would otherwise
have occurred had Congress not made this pivot.
It is widely understood by economists that this type of premature
pivot to fiscal austerity has been particularly damaging in Europe,
where unemployment rates are still highly elevated.
We didn’t bite off of as much of it as they did, but I present concrete examples of the damage this did to the economic lives of
working families earlier in this expansion.
Ms. MOORE. I can tell you that the rest of the panelists have argued, particularly I think Dr. Levy, and I am going to get to him
in a minute, about the importance of changing the entitlement programs lest we become too reliant upon them, in favor of doing other
things.
And I guess I am curious as to what those things will be. But
right now we are—the latest CBO report says that 32 million peo-

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ple are going to be kicked off Medicaid. There are proposals to
structurally change Medicaid.
We have seen our Speaker in the past talk about vulturizing
Medicare, changing Social Security. What do you think the impact
will be? Do you think this will solve our debt problem, I guess that
is the narrative?
Mr. BERNSTEIN. Are you asking me?
Ms. MOORE. Yes.
Mr. BERNSTEIN. I think if the House, particularly Republicans,
were interested in chipping away at the debt problem that Dr. Levy
emphasized in his testimony they wouldn’t be considering trillions
of dollars of tax cuts that are unpaid for.
Ms. MOORE. Amen. Unpaid for wars, I appreciate that. In terms
of—I am interested in the fiscal policy, the rules-based fiscal policy.
What prevents smart people from gaming the system, Wall Street
wizards, when we have a rules-based Fed?
First, Dr. Bernstein, and then maybe Dr. Selgin? Quickly?
Mr. BERNSTEIN. Okay. Quickly, I think that Dr. Levy was just
saying that you want it to be stated you want a rules-based Fed,
you want it to have flexibility.
I would argue very strenuously that is the antithesis of Title X
in the CHOICE Act. There is a really strong attempt to undermine
the Fed’s discretion, and I think any objective reading of the rule
would leave you with that impression.
Ms. MOORE. Dr. Selgin, why couldn’t a wizard of Wall Street
game the system with a rules-based approach? Go on, go for it.
Mr. SELGIN. Actually, it is the absence of rules that is easily
gamed as it allows monetary policy to become a football that special interests try to influence—or Congress itself, for financing the
deficit and any other number of reasons. And there is a long history of this kind of influence. A rule can be very flexible.
Ms. MOORE. It is an oxymoron to say you are going to have a rule
and then it is going to be flexible.
Mr. SELGIN. Yes. Let me explain.
Ms. MOORE. They taught me that in algebra.
Mr. SELGIN. Rules can be designed so that they allow for reactions to all kinds of circumstances.
Ms. MOORE. Dr. Levy needs my last 20 seconds.
Mr. SELGIN. All right.
Ms. MOORE. How would you change the structure of the entitlements?
Mr. LEVY. I would look carefully at the structure of Social Security, look carefully at the replacement rates in them that haven’t
been looked at—
Ms. MOORE. Who would be the losers?
Mr. LEVY. —since the early 1980s to be fair and to protect older
working people and phase things in in a logical way. On Medicare
and Medicaid, this gets into very difficult, including ethical issues.
Ms. MOORE. You brought it up, I didn’t. My time has expired.
Chairman BARR. Thank you. The gentlelady’s time has expired.
The Chair now recognizes the Vice Chair of the subcommittee,
Mr. Williams from Texas.
Mr. WILLIAMS. Thank you, Chairman Barr, and thank all of you
for being here today.

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Dr. Selgin, I wanted to talk a little bit about the Fed’s plan to
begin unwinding its balance sheet. I think in your testimony you
call it a recipe for failure. Why is that? And how should the Fed
proceed so that its normalization plan has a meaningful impact on
the balance sheet?
Mr. SELGIN. Thank you. As I mentioned in my testimony, the
Fed has for some years now failed to reach its inflation target. I
believe its plan for normalization will only make it more likely to
fail again and by a larger margin in the future.
The reason is that the plan the Fed has announced involves two
things: shrinking the balance sheet, which is itself a tightening
measure, of course; and raising the interest rate on excess reserves
that I have been complaining about, in the next several years to
over 3 percentage points, which is, of course, more than twice its
current level. That is tightening as well. So you have a lot of tightening going on by a Fed that is already too tight, according to its
own inflation target.
The Fed has also said, though, that if things get bad under its
current normalization plan, it will consider abandoning the shrinking of the balance sheet it has announced, and may even turn to
expanding it again.
This seems to me, all told, to be a recipe for failure. And I am
sorry to have to say that I believe that the Fed is perhaps not all
that keen on actually succeeding in becoming small again.
Mr. WILLIAMS. Okay. Thank you. Staying with you, I want to
quote Mr. Bernanke. Of course, we have all heard him say, ‘‘Banks
are not going to lend out the reserves at a rate lower than they can
earn at the Fed.’’
Well, I am a borrower. I borrow all the time, and I can certainly
appreciate a good rate. But the Fed’s policy of giving above-market
rates to banks that hold excess reserves that we have already
talked about is troubling.
A couple of weeks ago, this subcommittee had a hearing called,
‘‘The Federal Reserve’s Impact on Main Street, Retirees, and Savings.’’ So in your opinion, how has this policy affected Main Street
America, which I am and most of us are, and small businesses who
want to gain access to capital, which is important in expansion?
Mr. SELGIN. Banks ultimately pick their portfolios, reserves,
loans, whatever other assets they can acquire, so that the tendency
is for them all to be worth the same amount at the margin, as we
economists like to say.
When you make it more worthwhile for banks to hold reserves
by raising the rate on reserves, and particularly when you raise
that rate above comparable market rates, the first thing that happens is banks don’t make any short-term loans. They pull out of
the wholesale markets.
But in the long run, these adjustments include adjustments to
other kinds of lending. And, in fact, that is why lending is now, as
I said, about 80 percent of total bank deposits, whereas for years
before the crisis, total lending and total deposits moved together.
So that difference between 100 percent and 80 percent, there is
your small town lending loss.
Mr. WILLIAMS. Along those same lines, you also talked in your
testimony about removing inefficiencies—

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Mr. SELGIN. Yes.
Mr. WILLIAMS. —and improving the environment for economic
expansion. As it relates to our current debate on reforming the tax
code, do you have any specific tax policy reforms Congress should
focus on?
Mr. SELGIN. No, sir. I am not an expert on tax policy. I would
be offering my private citizen’s guesses on that subject, and I would
rather not.
Mr. WILLIAMS. Less tax would be good though. You would agree
with that, wouldn’t you?
Mr. SELGIN. Well, if it were less for me, yes.
[laughter]
Mr. WILLIAMS. Thank you. All right. Dr. Levy, in your testimony,
you state that sound monetary policy ultimately relies on sound fiscal policy. Many of us in this room continue to be concerned about
the long-term implications that our national debt will have on future generations.
So you talk about monetary policy and government finances
being interconnected. Can you go into greater detail on why policymakers, i.e. Congress, should not continue to ignore our national
debt, and what are the long-term consequences it could have on
monetary policy?
Mr. LEVY. It is not just the deficit spending that increases the
debt, it is what you are deficit spending for. When you look at how
the budget has evolved, a large and rising share of it is being allocated toward income support.
A lot of that is good, but a shrinking portion is being allocated
toward policies like infrastructure, job retraining, and research and
development, that would add to long run productive capacity.
Therefore, the increase in the debt and the allocation of the national resources, generated by the structure of the spending programs, is basically borrowing from the future and from future generations.
And so the problem you face is under current law, the policies,
the tax policies, the structure of the spending policies will reinforce
disappointing economic growth and only add to debt.
Chairman BARR. The gentleman’s time has expired.
The Chair now recognizes the gentleman from Michigan, Mr. Kildee.
Mr. KILDEE. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And to the panel, thank
you so much for your testimony.
Dr. Levy, I would just like to pick up where Ms. Moore left off.
She asked about specific structural changes in Medicaid/Medicare,
Social Security. And I wonder, without going too deep, because I
don’t have a lot of time, if you could just give examples of what you
mean by that, more specific examples of what you might mean by
changes? And if you could just quickly identify changes in each of
those three important programs?
Mr. LEVY. Social Security, you have to look at the internal structure of the benefits, what is called the replacement rate, which
hasn’t been changed in forever. You have to look at rates of return.
People who are older and retire much earlier are getting extremely
high rates of return on their Social Security contributions.

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You should treat Social Security income as an insurance policy
and tax the extent to which it exceeds your inputs.
By the way, I testified many decades ago, and encouraged the
Congress to tax a certain portion of Social Security benefits, and
that is happening. So you really need to look at the underlying
structure.
Medicare and Medicaid are much more difficult. You start out
with asking the question, why is the U.S. allocating about 18 percent of its GDP toward medical care without getting the results?
And you have to look at the structure of these programs, including, as I was starting to mention to Congresswoman Moore, you
need to get into this ethical issue.
Are we appropriately allocating resources when so much of Medicare goes to the last 18 months of life, and in some cases, with very
good examples, prolongs lives in ways that aren’t positive. So—
Mr. KILDEE. Right. And, sir—
Mr. LEVY. —these are ethical issues. I understand. But if you
really address the structure of the programs without just talking
about big numbers and—we are a wealthy Nation. If we restructured these programs, there would be more than enough resources
to insure the indigent, the poor, et cetera, et cetera.
Mr. KILDEE. I appreciate that. The difficulty that I am having,
and you referenced it, and I would ask Mr. Bernstein to comment
specifically on this, the frustration that I have is that, for a lot of
folks, and this applies to both sides of the aisle, dealing with this
question is sort of like in Washington like the weather. Everybody
complains about it, but nobody ever does anything about it.
The issue that I am concerned about is where we seem to see a
willingness, at least with this Congress, to push down on public investment.
It is in those areas where you would expect the greatest return,
in the development of skills, in the kind of income support that is
absolutely necessary to keep a family from completely tipping over
and going into a tragic death spiral.
Mr. Bernstein, I wonder if you might comment on how you think
the current budget proposals might impact both larger economic
performance, but specific issues that relate to families and communities?
Mr. BERNSTEIN. I would underscore the points that you were beginning to get at there, Congressman. If you look at the part of the
budget that is non-defense discretionary, that is actually where a
lot of the functions that you are describing live. And I actually
agree with Micky Levy’s points.
So take education, for example. Take access to college. The budgets that Republicans and President Trump have been sending up,
take those levels of funding, a share of GDP down to historical lows
that we have never seen anything like before, lower than any point
on record, going back to the 1960s when the modern data series
begin.
Whether we are talking about infrastructure, education,
childcare, helping people get back to work, investing in communities, that is where that lives. And just briefly on the social insurance programs, on Medicaid, Medicare, remember Social Security
reduces elderly poverty from 40 percent to 9 percent.

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About two-thirds of Social Security recipients depend on that income for half or at least half of their income. So this is a—the average benefit is $16,400 a year. Okay? We are not talking about lavishing money on retired people.
So instead of chopping away at these programs, we should look
at them as investments in our future. And I am afraid that the current budgets that we have seen go exactly in the opposite direction.
Mr. KILDEE. All right. Thank you. It seems that my time has expired.
I yield back. Thank you very much.
Chairman BARR. The Chair recognizes the chairman of our Capital Markets Subcommittee, Mr. Huizenga from Michigan.
Mr. HUIZENGA. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And quickly, this isn’t
the main part of what I wanted to talk about, but Dr. Bernstein
brought up Title X and his concerns. I think they are unfounded,
being intimately involved with the creation of the FORM Act,
which then was put into the CHOICE Act.
Page 503, Line 1, Subtitle C, Requirements for a Directive Policy
Rule shall, and it goes through seven, eight, nine various things.
Of that, it says, ‘‘The Fed needs to just describe what it is doing.’’
Down at number 6, it says that, ‘‘They need to include a statement as to whether the directive policy rule substantially conforms
to the policy rule that they wrote, and, if applicable, A, an explanation to the extent in which it departs reference rule that, again,
it wrote, not us; B, a detailed justification for the departure from
the rule that it wrote; C, a description of the circumstances under
which the directive policy may be amended in the future,’’ that
they wrote; and then ‘‘7, include a certification of the directive policy rules expected to support the economy in achieving stable prices
and maximizing natural employment for long term.’’
For a body that created the Fed, I think it is completely applicable that they explain it. I have to move on, though, to Dr. Levy.
Mr. BERNSTEIN. But can we argue about that for a minute?
Mr. HUIZENGA. Well, no, because I have 3 minutes and 30 seconds to get to another point.
Mr. BERNSTEIN. It is going to—
Mr. HUIZENGA. But we can take that up—
Mr. BERNSTEIN. Let’s take that up.
Mr. HUIZENGA. —at another time. Monetary policy, I believe Dr.
Levy, you had said, ‘‘Monetary policy has stimulated fiscal markets, but has not stimulated economic growth.’’ And I agree. And
you later then said something about large pockets of underperformance versus meaningful and fair fiscal reforms.
That was in your opening statement. And we ran out of time. I
wanted you to explain a little bit of that, because I have done research into my own district here.
My home county is at 2.6 percent unemployment. However, I
have pockets, including in Muskegon County, which houses a place
called Muskegon Heights, predominantly African American, about
10,00 people located within another city, where the official unemployment rate is in the low teens.
That is not U6 numbers. That is the official unemployment rate.
I have the poorest county in the State of Michigan, Lake County,
again, heavily minority.

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I have the largest Hispanic district in the State of Michigan. And
what we are seeing is those minority communities being left behind
in unprecedented numbers compared to where the rest of the economy and society is accelerating.
And I think it is exactly as you were headed towards. Wall Street
is doing just fine. If you are a qualified investor, an elite citizen,
you are doing more than just fine.
If you are Joe and Jane IRA, you are struggling, because you are
not able to get into it. And if you don’t even have that investment
account, you are really struggling. So I would like you to expound
on that, please?
Mr. LEVY. Thank you. I give the Fed credit for the aggressive
stimulus during the financial crisis and recession. That was 8 years
ago. The effectiveness of its subsequent quantitative easing programs and low interest rates is highly questionable.
Since QE3 in the fall of 2012, and the implementation of forward
guidance and sustained negative real policy rates, nominal GDP
growth has decelerated. It has stimulated financial markets, it has
not stimulated economic growth.
I emphasize that monetary policy is incapable of addressing some
of the pockets of under-economic performance and underperformance in labor markets in your district and nationally. Those need
to be addressed with the proper policy tools.
One of the critical points I emphasize is that if we identified the
sources of the increase in debt and ask how can we restructure
those while maintaining the intent of the programs? If we did that
properly, that would free up resources for us to spend on areas like
you have mentioned and in programs that would increase productive capacity.
And I think that is critically important. Congress and the Fed
need to understand the proper roles of monetary and fiscal policies,
identify the sources of our underperformance and frustrations
about the economy and address them with the proper policy tools.
Chairman BARR. The gentleman’s time has expired.
The Chair recognizes the gentleman from Illinois, Mr. Foster, for
5 minutes.
Mr. FOSTER. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And thank you to our
witnesses. I would like to quickly touch on one thing, which actually was the subject of a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, talking
about repealing the debt limit, in which a pair of very respected
Democrats and Republicans made the case, and a number of interesting—well, besides just going over the history—they made the interesting point that at present the debt limit negotiations are being
used by Democrats to increase spending, which is sort of contrary
to the intent, certainly of Republicans who typically talk about and
attempted to use it as as a cap on spending.
And so I would first like to just ask anyone who would like to
opine, whether this is a useful mechanism? It is often compared to
refusing to pay your credit card after you have made the purchase,
and that we would be much better off taking seriously the budget
process and controlling the spending at the level of budget resolution and so on. And I wonder if any of you—Dr. Leeper?
Mr. LEEPER. Yes. I think that the debt limit is anachronistic and
is almost counter-productive for what you want to do. It ends up

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increasing uncertainty about fiscal policy. As you say, it gets used
as a political tool in a variety of ways. I think you would be much
better off if you were to adopt some clear fiscal objectives.
This is happening broadly in Europe now where they may pick
a debt GDP ratio that they try to aim for. They may build in limits
on spending that are bound by revenues and so forth. And I think
what all of that does—
Mr. FOSTER. Sir, that is the point of a budget resolution. That
is the way it should be properly enforced.
Mr. LEEPER. Let me just add one thing. I think one of the key
points is that in a lot of these European economies, there is an outside entity that evaluates policy.
And the CBO, for all the good that it does do, can’t play that role.
And so there are these fiscal councils that I think actually have
been very constructive in Europe.
Mr. BERNSTEIN. I think Eric’s point about the anachronism is exactly on target. I think your point—and there is a great deal of confusion about this, that failing to raise the debt limit is failing to
pay for spending that this body has already approved. And so it is
much like saying I have decided not to pay for the meal I just ate.
But third, it was interesting, I think it was Mr. Davidson, I don’t
know if he is still here, earlier talked about the damage to the
economy of uncertainty in our policy environment. Fooling around
with the debt ceiling, which has become kind of unfortunately a
Washington tradition, absolutely boosts that kind of uncertainty in
a way that I would think this committee would consider to be
anathema.
And I would also say the same thing, by the way, about
healthcare. I can think of almost no way to further increase uncertainty in health insurance markets than by continually failing to
nail down what it is this country wants to do with healthcare reform.
Mr. FOSTER. Yes, Dr. Levy?
Mr. LEVY. I think it would be much more constructive if Congress really reassessed its budget processes. What I have seen over
the last couple of decades is what started out as identifying entitlement programs as entitlement versus discretionary programs that
have to be appropriated through the appropriation committees
every year.
This has evolved into entitlement programs are mandatory and
then you have discretionary and non-defense discretionary. So as
Dr. Bernstein noted, the current budget proposal for Fiscal Year
2018 really proposes significant cuts to non-defense discretionary
programs.
And the reason why it does that is because the entitlement programs, which are mandatory, are just psychologically thought of to
be off the table. And so I recommend really, really re-thinking the
budget process rather than hanging your hat on the debt ceiling.
Mr. FOSTER. And one of the key elements that is missing in the
U.S. budget process is something present in many parliamentary
systems, which is that if you fail to pass a budget by a certain date,
that forces, calls a new election. And if we had a mechanism like
that, I think the dynamic would change.
Chairman BARR. The gentleman’s time has expired.

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The Chair recognizes the gentleman from North Carolina, Mr.
Pittenger.
Mr. PITTENGER. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And I thank each of
you for being here today and for your expertise.
Dr. Selgin, we are 8 years out of the recession. In great measure,
the American households and businesses have certainly not been
able to climb back to their full economic potential.
We have the largest demographic group in the country, low-income minority people today. Is the Federal Reserve’s accommodation of unsustainable fiscal policies and favoring some sectors over
others in credit markets holding our economy back?
Mr. SELGIN. Yes, Congressman. As I said, to the extent that the
Fed is shunting savings into the mortgage market, the market for
mortgage-backed securities, and into the Treasury, which savings
might be instead employed for productive bank lending where that
includes not just lending to businesses but to farmers and consumers (because consumer lending is also productive or can be). To
that extent, the Fed is constraining—its policies are a drag on economic growth.
We have always depended heavily on bank lending as one of the
important contributors to economic growth. And even though it
must be said that banks sometimes do very bad things when they
are lending and we saw plenty of that in the last crisis, nevertheless, without robust bank lending policies we will have less economic growth. And that harms everybody.
Mr. PITTENGER. Thank you, sir.
Dr. Leeper, would you concur that unsustainable fiscal policies
and favoritism of certain sectors work against what the Fed has
fought so hard for throughout the history and that is monetary policy that is independent of the distributional politics?
Mr. LEVY. Yes, I generally agree. And the best—oh, was I supposed to—
Mr. PITTENGER. Dr. Leeper, I asked him but I will ask you to
comment.
Mr. LEVY. Oh, I apologize.
Mr. PITTENGER. That is all right.
Mr. LEVY. I am truly sorry.
Mr. LEEPER. I guess that I have a somewhat different view about
this. Whether we want to call what the Fed did fiscal policy or not
seems fairly arbitrary. The point of my testimony was that monetary policy always has fiscal implications.
And so, do we want to say that, and what I mean by ‘‘that,’’ is
that it has implications for tax and spending policy. And so by that
definition, we could say that everything the Fed does is fiscal policy.
So I am not sure that I see that as as a useful label. But beyond
that, I think that the biggest issue that is happening now is take
what I was saying about when the Fed tries to reduce inflation by
raising interest rates and turn it on its head.
It is a symmetric argument. So when the Fed reduced the funds
rate dramatically and kept it near zero for many years, the kind
of fiscal backing that was necessary for that to have beneficial effects on the economy was to run higher deficits.

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And while there was the ARRA, that petered out and it is not
clear that the fiscal backing that the Fed needed for that interest
rate policy to be effective was forthcoming or that people expected
it would be forthcoming.
Mr. PITTENGER. Thank you.
Dr. Levy, you are welcome to respond?
Mr. LEVY. I agree with Dr. Leeper, and let me just add this point
that the Fed’s holdings of mortgage-backed securities has clearly
stepped over the boundaries into credit allocation, and maybe we
could legitimize it, the purchases during the height of the financial
crises.
A week after the Fed started QE1, Chairman Bernanke stated,
‘‘This is an extraordinary emergency measure and we are going to
unwind it on a timely basis.’’ Well, they haven’t unwound it. It has
even gotten bigger.
The Fed shouldn’t be involved in credit allocation issues, and I
think their strategy to unwind its portfolio should go much further
to go back to an all Treasuries portfolio.
Mr. PITTENGER. Thank you, my time has expired.
I yield back.
Chairman BARR. The gentleman from Texas, Mr. Green, is recognized.
Mr. GREEN. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I thank the witnesses as well. Mr. Chairman, I have been here long enough to remember when the contention was that Q.E. was going to create
runaway inflation. The contention now seems to be that Q.E. has
been the reason for our not having the inflation that we have targeted.
I can also remember when we had this theory presented to us of
expansionary fiscal contraction. And that expansionary fiscal contraction was going to be the means by which we would save the
world.
Let’s just examine some of this, and I would like to talk to Dr.
Bernstein, if I may? Dr. Bernstein, expansionary fiscal contraction
contemplates layoffs, contemplates cuts, and to a certain extent
does not allow for the infrastructure projects needed at a time
when the country could afford them, when interest rates were low.
It didn’t allow for that.
And my friends who are pushing expansionary fiscal contraction
don’t seem to think that has an impact on economic policies that
are perpetuated, perpetrated, if you will, by the Fed. These things
work hand-in-hand.
So Mr. Bernstein, if you would, talk for just a moment about how
the impact of expansionary fiscal contraction to the extent that my
colleagues have engaged in it and they have done everything that
they can it seems to me to cut and gut—the infrastructure programs haven’t come online. Would you talk for just a moment
about it?
Mr. BERNSTEIN. What you are calling expansionary fiscal contraction, I called austerity measures, and in fact, aptly described
these would be contractionary fiscal measures.
Simply by that definition, an increase in government spending
increases GDP. That is arithmetic. However, there are many moving parts. And the Federal Reserve, if they believe the economy is

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too close to full employment, will offset fiscal stimulus at times like
that.
The quote that I presented in my written and spoken testimony
was Ben Bernanke coming to this body a few years ago when the
expansion was proceeding at too slow a pace, saying, ‘‘not only will
the Federal Reserve not increase interest rates to offset fiscal stimulus, but it will use it as complementary.’’
We have seen in Europe the damage that fiscal austerity has
done to growth when the pivot deficit consolidation has occurred
too soon, and we have seen it in this country as well. It is one of
the reasons why it took so long for the output gap to close. And
in fact it has barely closed now 8 years into the expansion.
Mr. GREEN. And if you would, explain to us some of the things
that could have been done that would have complimented the Q.E.
of the Fed?
Mr. BERNSTEIN. I think the most important types of fiscal complements would have been in the area of infrastructure investment,
increased unemployment insurance compensation at a time when
the job market wasn’t where it is now, when the job market was
still having trouble closing in on full employment.
And I thought the payroll tax holiday, as I show in my testimony, I have a graphic of the impact of GDP shaved about one and
a half points off GDP in 2013 by prematurely ending what we
called the payroll tax holiday.
I do want to make one quick other point if I may, which is that
there has been a considerable amount of criticism of some of the
work that the Federal Reserve was doing in this period. Eric said
earlier something to the—George said something early to the effect
that the Fed had an increased footprint in the credit system.
In 2008, and I often think that we do have some economic amnesia around these points, the credit system was completely shut
down.
Mr. GREEN. If you would let me just assist you with this, it was
shut down to the extent that banks wouldn’t lend to each other.
That is pretty significant. Continue.
Mr. BERNSTEIN. So the Federal Reserve simply was manifesting
its role of lender of last resort in the way that the Congress created
it precisely to do so. Now, we can have arguments about how quickly they have unwound.
I think it was interesting to hear Dr. Levy say that the housing
market is booming and then be so critical of the MBS program.
There is no question either in my mind or in the research that I
would be happy to share with the committee that those two phenomena are related.
Mr. GREEN. Let me make one quick point. We have had CEO salaries increase greatly. Last year, the number one person on the top
10 CEOs in terms of salaries had about $98 million as a salary, a
499 percent increase.
Question for you, increasing the minimum wage, the impact of
that, please, on the economy?
Chairman BARR. Quick answer. The time has expired, so a quick
answer.
Mr. BERNSTEIN. Moderate increases in the minimum wage consistently have their intended effect of boosting the earnings of low-

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wage labor diminishing the inequality you are talking about without substantial job loss effects.
Mr. GREEN. Thank you.
Mr. Chairman, I yield back.
Chairman BARR. Thank you. Time has expired.
The Chair recognizes the gentlemen from Arkansas, Mr. Hill.
Mr. HILL. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And thank you for this continuing set of hearings on monetary policy and fiscal policy today.
I appreciate having such a distinguished panel joining us. I appreciate everyone’s time and your excellent testimony.
We have talked about fiscal policy and monetary policy, the topic
of the hearing, but I would like to raise another constraining factor
I think was at work during this period, which I would like, maybe,
Dr. Levy for you to start out with. And that is the non-monetary
policy structural impediments of our regulatory system and how, I
think, that has constrained growth to some degree.
We have talked a lot about across the economy, not just the
Dodd-Frank Act, this is not a Dodd-Frank comment, but labor market regulation, environmental regulation. These all were on the upswing during this contractionary period where we were trying to
get the economy growing again.
But certainly in the credit allocation aspect, Dodd-Frank did
have an impact on certain aspects of credit and not making it flow
as well. Would you address sort of that administrative state of nonmonetary policy, non-fiscal policy aspect of constraint on growth?
Mr. LEVY. Yes. I believe that one of the factors that has led unprecedented monetary ease not to stimulate the economy has been
some of the inhibiting factors on both aggregate demand and supply and production due to the growing web of regulations that you
mentioned not just on the Federal level, but on the State and local
levels in the non-financial sectors.
The list goes on. It is expanding and what it does as well, the
Fed has been very, very successful through its policies to lower the
real cost of capital.
Businesses, when they think about investment projects and hiring, they think about the regulatory environment, the current and
expected tax environment, and their hurdle rate for taking on
projects stays very high and they put a wide band of uncertainty
about it. So I think these are definitely having an impact on the
non-financial sector.
It is also clear that the implementation of portions of DoddFrank, particularly the stress test and some of the micromanagement, is clearly affecting banks’ willingness to lend, so both in the
financial and non-financial sector.
Mr. HILL. Yes.
Mr. LEVY. I think this regulatory environment is very, very important.
Mr. HILL. I appreciate that—
Mr. LEVY. It has slowed potential growth and it has inhibited the
Fed’s policies from working.
Mr. HILL. Thanks. That is my view as well. I think it is a good
area for research for our Ph.D. community to really look at that
both in labor policy and financial allocation policy.

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Dr. Selgin, let’s talk about the balance sheet. Governor Powell
has laid out a long-term normalization process for the Fed. And to
me that is very important, and we were at about 6 percent or so
of GDP in terms of Fed size.
We got up. We are up around 24 percent of GDP. Chair Yellen
was here, and she talked about, ‘‘Well, we are not ever going to go
back to kind of where we were,’’ but if we look at 6 percent or 8
percent of GDP for total Fed balance sheet footings, that would be,
I don’t know, a trillion to a trillion four up from, say, $900 billion
before the crisis.
Do you see any reason for the Fed balance sheet to be larger
than where it was in the range before the crisis?
Mr. SELGIN. Yes, there is a reason, but it isn’t a reason for it to
be as large as they are planning to make it when they are done
with normalizing. And the reason is the Fed is the sole supplier of
currency. If we allow for the trend of currency growth to that extent, the balance sheet today would have to be bigger than it was
in 2000.
Mr. HILL. What about as a percentage though? Do you see—
Mr. SELGIN. Oh, I’m sorry. As a percentage, no—
Mr. HILL. —that is why I am saying between a trillion and a trillion four would be the same.
Mr. SELGIN. I apologize. As a percentage of GDP, there is no reason. I would like to address Dr. Bernstein’s remark about the footprint. Let me be clear. The reason the wholesale markets shut
down in October 2008 was because the Fed purposely shut them
down using interest on excess reserves. It wanted to keep its loans
from spilling into the wholesale market.
You cannot celebrate the Fed for saving the wholesale market in
the banking system when in fact it did the opposite. I quite agree
that it should have been a hero, but it wasn’t. It was the villain
in this story, and even if it was justified in expanding its balance
sheet back then, it certainly isn’t justified 8 years afterwards, 9
years afterwards.
Mr. BERNSTEIN. I guess I would just ask, what about the housing
bubble?
Mr. SELGIN. What about the housing bubble?
Mr. HILL. I yield back, Mr. Chairman.
[laughter]
Chairman BARR. Time has expired.
The Chair recognizes the gentlemen from Minnesota, Mr.
Emmer.
Mr. EMMER. Thank you to the Chair, and thanks to this fantastic
panel for this discussion.
Dr. Levy, You were talking—it just interested me this morning
when you said, ‘‘Sustained monetary easing has failed to stimulate
the economy. In fact, what it has done is it has stimulated financial
markets, but hasn’t stimulated economic growth.’’ And then you
commented that, ‘‘Fiscal policy has created this huge debt.’’
And your testimony is that both need to be reset. You think the
Fed should be more aggressive in the unwinding, was your other
piece. Could you just comment on that?
Mr. LEVY. Certainly.
Mr. EMMER. Its balance sheet is what you were talking about.

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Mr. LEVY. Certainly. For a variety of reasons, the Fed’s maintaining a $4.5 trillion economy, over $2 trillion is basically at sitting as excess reserves. The banks are not lending it out, so—
Mr. EMMER. I understand that. I don’t mean to interrupt, but I
want to keep this on track because what I am going at is Chair
Yellen has suggested kind of a 5-year. When you talk about aggressive, what do you think should be done? Is that the right timeline?
Should it be shorter?
Mr. LEVY. I actually think 4 or 5 years is just fine because then
most of it could be unwound in a passive way. They wouldn’t have
to sell it. It could just unwind through amortization, but I do take
issue with the Fed on a critical point.
It should be going back to an all Treasuries portfolio. Yes, the
Fed subsidies of the mortgage market are helping housing, but that
bids up prices of housing. And it is high-income people who own
housing, and it also bids up rental prices and exerts duress on lowincome people.
Mr. EMMER. Yes. Dr. Leeper, I was interested when I read your
testimony before the hearing today. You go back to the 1930s, and
you talk about what those of us who don’t have your background,
but we are just from Main Street, USA, and not from the coasts,
we already think the Fed has hurt its credibility.
And, quite frankly, the government, because of a story that you
tell with President Roosevelt, where he changed monetary policy
purposely because he was going to inflate the currency and reduce
his debt, our debt, I guess. But you talk about this unwinding. We
have a big problem as we raise interest rates. How do you do this
and survive?
Mr. LEEPER. I think that is a very good question, and my feeling
about that is for you to understand that through that fiscal channel, in other words, if the Fed starts to normalize interest rates
and debt service rises and Congress doesn’t respond by adjusting
taxes or spending to accommodate that, those increases in interest
rates are likely to end up in higher inflation rather than lower inflation.
Mr. EMMER. Right.
Mr. LEEPER. And so understanding the nature of those interactions is what it is about.
Mr. EMMER. And you may not be able to control that.
Mr. LEEPER. Right.
Mr. EMMER. This is the issue we had.
Mr. LEEPER. It is within your control, because you control the
budget.
Mr. EMMER. I understand that, but once this gets away from
them, that is what they are desperately trying to maintain is make
sure that—you want a certain amount of inflation, but you can’t
have it run away.
And by the opposite side, if you do the wrong things, you could
encounter deflation, which would be every bit as damaging. Dr.
Selgin, why don’t you talk about that a little bit. Address how we
get out of the place that we are in?
Mr. SELGIN. Sir, what we need to do is to get back—
Mr. EMMER. And by the way, Dr. Selgin, the one thing I do want
to ask you, because I get this mixed testimony is, what has the

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Federal Reserve done in the last 3 decades that has worked? Let’s
reduce it. What have they done in the last decade that has worked,
sir?
Mr. SELGIN. In the last decade?
Mr. EMMER. Yes.
Mr. SELGIN. Oh, not much. Not much.
Mr. EMMER. Can you point to anything that—
Mr. SELGIN. As I said, the problem is the Fed undermined its
own operating mechanism with this interest on excess reserves policy. It put the monetary transmission mechanism, as we call it, in
neutral. It steps on the gas, nothing happens.
Mr. EMMER. Right.
Mr. SELGIN. Reserves pile up. The Fed is its own worst enemy
as far as being able to affect total spending in the economy and
control inflation, because of policies it implemented in 2008. It has
wrecked its own transmission.
It did it at first because it was worried about inflation. Now, with
the same setup in place, it can’t get the inflation it wants. This is
not surprising really.
Yes, quantitative easing had some effect, but much less than it
would normally have had because the reserves were made to pile
up in banks. I don’t want to say that the Fed has never had some
relatively-sound policies, but I do say that the change in their monetary control mechanism implemented since the crisis has been a
disaster. We need to go back to the old control—
Chairman BARR. Your time—
Mr. SELGIN. —mechanism or something not too dissimilar from
it.
Chairman BARR. —has expired.
Mr. SELGIN. And that is the key.
Chairman BARR. Thank you.
Mr. BERNSTEIN. Chairman Barr, could I make, let’s say, one sentence?
Chairman BARR. The time has expired, and—
Mr. BERNSTEIN. Okay.
Chairman BARR. —and Mr. Sherman may give you that opportunity.
And I now recognize the gentleman from California, Mr. Sherman.
Mr. SHERMAN. I have my own questions. I am looking up at that
debt clock, quantitative easing raised—Mr. Bernstein maybe you
have the number. I believe it was many tens of billions of dollars
for our country last year, that is to say the amount the Fed turned
over to the Treasury. Do you happen to have the figure?
Mr. BERNSTEIN. Off the top of my head, $500 billion cumulatively.
Mr. SHERMAN. Well, not all in 1 year.
Mr. BERNSTEIN. No, no. I am talking about—
Mr. SHERMAN. Dr. Levy, do you have the 1-year number?
Mr. LEVY. The Fed remitted in Fiscal Year 2015, $117 billion.
That number has come down to about 85, largely because of the
amount it has the raised rate, so it has paid excess reserves.

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Mr. SHERMAN. So we have a debt clock up there, and we would
be hundreds of billions of dollars higher if the Fed had not remitted
the money.
And we are told that we have a disaster. We have one of the
longest periods of time with economic growth quarter after quarter.
The number I have for 2016, by the way, is $92 billion, which is
very close to what Dr. Levy had to say.
We are told that we can’t get the job-producing benefits of low
interest rates for too long under too many different circumstances,
otherwise, we will have inflation.
Dr. Bernstein, is inflation a big problem?
Mr. BERNSTEIN. No. First of all, the remittances I was talking
about were cumulative, so about $100 billion a year over the last
5 years or so is off the top of my head.
Mr. SHERMAN. Yes.
Mr. BERNSTEIN. No. And let me just correct the record. I think
you would be very hard-pressed to find an economist from any side
of the aisle who would assert as strongly as George just did that
the Fed played no role in helping to offset the damage of the Great
Recession.
We can have really good nuanced arguments, and we are having
those arguments today, about how effective it was and the roll-offs
and things like that. But the Federal Reserve was, in my view, and
I have evidence in my testimony—
Mr. SHERMAN. Dr. Bernstein, let’s go to the benefits of the Fed
giving $100 billion to the United States Treasury. I am told by
those in the field, that this is extraordinary, not, shouldn’t be the
real focus of things. It is just $100 billion. Do not pay attention to
it because the Fed has other objectives. And I am looking at a debt
clock.
And to me, $100 billion a year is not something I am going to
ignore just because the tradition in the field is to ignore it, and say
that is not the objective. The objective should be the $100 billion.
What would we do to turn it into $200 billion? Please don’t miss
the goal.
Mr. BERNSTEIN. These remittances have certainly been important. They are a residual—
Mr. SHERMAN. Dr. Bernstein, I asked you a question. What
would we do to—
Mr. BERNSTEIN. We would have to increase the level of the Fed’s
balance sheet. And, in fact, they are going in the other direction,
obviously.
Mr. SHERMAN. And they know they are going the other direction,
because we had Janet Yellen in here tell us, ‘‘Oh, that isn’t important. That isn’t our mission. That is not what we focus on.’’
I am looking at the debt clock. I don’t know what they focus on.
I don’t know what—you can’t focus on it because you would have
to turn around, but I am focused on it, and it—
Mr. BERNSTEIN. I—
Mr. SHERMAN. —was put up there by the Majority.
Mr. BERNSTEIN. I am well aware of what the debt clock is ticking
away there.
Mr. SHERMAN. Why shouldn’t we give a very high priority to
hundreds of billions of dollars?

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Mr. BERNSTEIN. Because you have to ask yourself, is increasing
the Fed’s balance sheet the right monetary policy right now? Now,
you can go—
Mr. SHERMAN. No. Okay. That—
Mr. BERNSTEIN. You can make the case—
Mr. SHERMAN. There are tremendous benefits from that as a
monetary policy now.
Mr. BERNSTEIN. There have been many more benefits than my
colleagues on the panel have acknowledged. And, in fact, I was just
looking at—
Mr. SHERMAN. Without that policy, we wouldn’t have as flat a
debt curve.
Mr. BERNSTEIN. Yes.
Mr. SHERMAN. We wouldn’t have as much investment in the
economy. Property values would decline—
Mr. BERNSTEIN. But if I—
Mr. SHERMAN. Jobs would decline.
Mr. BERNSTEIN. Yes.
Mr. SHERMAN. People would go hungry, and that debt clock
would be going faster.
Mr. BERNSTEIN. Those are—
Mr. SHERMAN. So exactly what is bad with a bigger balance sheet
again?
Mr. BERNSTEIN. First of all, let me just say that if this body really wanted to get that debt clock going in the other direction, then
we wouldn’t be looking at budgets that continually pursue trillions
of dollars of unpaid-for tax cuts. To me, it is the fiscal policy—
Mr. SHERMAN. Dr. Bernstein, this is the Financial Services Committee. If I wanted to get on Ways and Means, I should have cut
a different deal.
Again, what—oh, okay. So we could—
Mr. BERNSTEIN. Okay. So if your point is—
Mr. SHERMAN. So let me just—wait. If we enlarge the balance
sheet, we can slow that debt clock and instead of doing what the
Fed is doing, which is taking away the $100 billion, we could add
another $100 billion in debt relief. I don’t know whether Dr. Levy
is going to be called on or not, but—
Chairman BARR. The gentleman’s time has expired.
And in addition to the debt clock, we have another clock that we
are focused on, and that is the clock of the remaining time to vote.
We are going to clear these last two Member’s questions, and then
we are going to have to adjourn.
The gentleman from Ohio, Mr. Davidson, is recognized.
Mr. DAVIDSON. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
And thank you to our witnesses. I really appreciate your testimony. And I note that as is normal in these hearings, we hear folks
from the other side of the room talk about this period of austerity.
It is occasionally that we have a witness on the panel also reference austerity.
And I just want to ask you, Dr. Leeper, does the trend that we
have been on since 2010 represent a period of austerity fiscally?
Mr. LEEPER. I think that what we have done is very much what
lots of other countries have done, which is, in response to the crisis
we did a fiscal stimulus, and then we immediately began to wring

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our hands and talk about how don’t worry about this fiscal expansion, because we are going to contract.
Within 6 days of passing the ARRA, President Obama was pledging that he was going to reduce deficits by half.
Mr. DAVIDSON. Right.
Mr. LEEPER. I think this is very confusing to people.
Mr. DAVIDSON. Yes. So thanks. And I take a little bit of exception
with the idea that somehow my reality of the small business guy
not having confidence in Congress or the Fed, to be somehow we
need to provide certainty in the market. Certainty is something I
will talk about in a bit.
Certainty of bad outcomes is not a good thing. Certainty of good
outcomes is great. And when you look at the markets, in the year,
you talk about Obama, there was some doom and gloom. There was
a lot of uncertainty. There was a lot of regulatory uncertainty.
And with the change of Administration, what you have seen is
still some uncertainty, but a lot more confidence—a 3-year high in
business confidence, the markets are rallying, because people believe there is going to be a change. I would say the simple answer
is no, that does not represent austerity. It represents an awful lot
of spending.
If I could go the next slide on mine, I cycled it a bit ago to show,
this is the net result of all of the tax revenue we collect and all
of the money that we spend. This year, we are on a path to spend
roughly $700 billion more dollars than we collect.
Unfortunately, at the start of the year, the plan was to continue
on this path. As Herb Stein said, and I referenced earlier, ‘‘If something can’t continue, it will eventually stop.’’
Dr. Selgin, when will this no longer be sustainable? When will
it stop? This is the uncertainty we are all looking for.
Mr. SELGIN. I once again defer to the others. That is not my expertise. I have heard a million predictions about this, and I don’t
dare say which, if any of them, is correct.
Mr. DAVIDSON. Dr. Levy, would you like to comment?
Mr. LEVY. The answer is, nobody knows when things become
unsustainable. I want to hit on a critical point you made, Congressman Davidson, this term, ‘‘austerity.’’ I will just ask in lay terms,
how can you say the budget is austere, when year after year you
are spending more than you are taxing?
And I might note, the European example was used earlier. The
austerity in Europe hurt those economies because 80 percent of the
budget deficit reductions were through tax increases that harmed
economic activity.
So I think we need to think seriously about, once again, what we
are deficit spending for? And can we achieve the intent of those
programs, but just restructure them so that they are more efficient? But the bottom line is, the answer to your question is that
nobody knows.
Mr. DAVIDSON. But no one knows precisely when. We just know
that it is not possible. So if you look at our debt-to-GDP ratio, as
the slide that I started out on, that is not sustainable. At some
point we see what happened in Greece. I don’t have their slide.
Eventually, people lose confidence in our debt market.

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30
And in fact, part of the reason that the Fed’s balance sheet grew
is we didn’t have a place for some of the debt to go. No one had
confidence to buy the assets, in this case, mortgage-backed securities, and it would triple the macroeconomy if we didn’t do something. That was the fear.
You could do something. Was it the right thing? It seems to have
worked so far. I think it is unconventional, and we should have
changed course. We are unwinding it, and as we are unwinding
that, my time is unwound. So I would love to talk to you more, but
my time has expired.
Mr. Chairman, I yield back.
Chairman BARR. The gentleman yields back.
The Chair recognizes the gentleman from Indiana, Mr. Hollingsworth.
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. Hearing my colleague talk, I am often reminded of that old adage when somebody was asked how they went
bankrupt: slowly at first, and then suddenly. And so, like you said,
no one knows when it might happen, but it might happen suddenly.
And I would like to welcome all the panelists here, but certainly,
Dr. Leeper, who comes from the most beautiful district in the country, I like to say, Indiana’s Ninth District, and I appreciate you
being here.
Reading through your testimony, one of the things that I wanted
to talk about was the combination of unwinding the balance sheet
at the Federal Reserve and large fiscal deficits that are expected
to expand over the next couple of years during that 5-year period
and just the amount of capital that it going to soak up and what
that implies for crowding out investment in the private sector and
other issues? And kind of just share your general views on the combination of those, too?
Mr. LEEPER. Oh, wow. I actually would like to think about these
separately—
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. Okay.
Mr. LEEPER. —to tell you the truth. No doubt there will be some
interactions, but I don’t think that it is something that we understand terribly well.
My points about the interactions between monetary and fiscal
policy are really independent of the size of the Fed’s balance sheet.
That the magnitude of the Fed’s balance sheet per se doesn’t affect,
for example, how much—
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. I guess it is hard for me to recognize—
Mr. LEEPER. —interest payments—
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. Right. So as they shrink the balance sheet,
private capital is going to have to come in to fund the rolling over
of those Treasuries.
And then in addition to that, new Treasury issuance on account
of current deficits, the combination of those two gets to be a pretty
sizable amount of capital that is going to fund deficits and fund
previous deficits that used to be held at the Federal Reserve.
Mr. LEEPER. Yes. but there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of
demand for Treasuries.
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. Today.
Mr. LEEPER. Well—

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31
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. Yes, which kind of gets to my question
about—
Mr. LEEPER. Yes. Today, but a lot of that demand is coming from
overseas.
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. Right.
Mr. LEEPER. So I don’t think there is any reason to think that
there is going to be a huge crowding out that occurs during the
unwinding.
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. Okay. One of the other things that we
have talked about several times in committee, and you have heard
it here today, is interest on excess reserves.
Now, Chair Yellen has made the frequent argument that the Fed
itself is incapable of controlling the Fed funds rate without paying
this interest on excess reserves. Is that something that you believe
or buy into?
Mr. LEEPER. As a matter of public policy, I have yet to hear a
persuasive argument for paying above-market rates on excess reserves.
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. Great. Fantastic. And then one of the other
things I wanted to talk to you about, and I certainly know the dual
mandate that the Fed has right now, but just clean slate, what is
your view on maybe an increasing academic literature around targeting nominal GDP or nominal GDP growth versus a dual mandate of price stability and full employment?
Mr. LEEPER. That is a good question, and I think it cuts on—
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. Finally found one.
Mr. LEEPER. I think it cuts on the issue of whether the Fed ought
to be held accountable to a Taylor Rule or something like that.
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. Right.
Mr. LEEPER. What the academic literature tells us is that something like an inflation-targeting rule or a nominal GDP rule is actually far superior to a Taylor Rule. And the reason for that is Taylor Rules can instruct the Fed to do strange things, depending on
what shocks hit the economy.
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. Right.
Mr. LEEPER. So, for example, if you get a spike to oil prices—
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. Transient price shocks, yes.
Mr. LEEPER. It raises prices and it lowers output, and the Taylor
Rule is going to tell the Fed to contract.
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. Right.
Mr. LEEPER. And so, whereas if you have an inflation-targeting
rule—
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. Right.
Mr. LEEPER. —you would be able to avoid that kind of instruction.
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. For clarity, in the previous legislation that
we passed out of this committee, the Taylor Rule is frequently
talked about. There is no specific rule that is demanded, but just
a more rules-based monetary policy regime.
The second piece that I wanted to ask about, and my colleagues
might be annoyed at the number of times I ask about this, but
something I am increasingly concerned about is the relationship between full employment and wage growth and how anemic wage
growth has been despite, I guess, approaching full employment.

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And something that I worry about is that—in fact, the Phillips
curve turns out to be nonlinear or might be nonlinear, and we
might be approaching a time period where the Fed will be far behind the curve, because they have pushed full unemployment and
pushed unemployment lower and lower, only to find ourselves now
behind the curve as the part of the Phillips curve that is nonlinear
begins to take over.
Is there something to worry about there? Is that something that
some of the academic literature has talked about and been concerned about?
Mr. LEEPER. I think there is nothing to worry about there.
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. Okay.
Mr. LEEPER. I don’t think there has ever been a time when there
was a stable relationship between unemployment and inflation,
and there certainly are likely to be nonlinearities.
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. Yes.
Mr. LEEPER. But the idea that suddenly inflation is going to
shoot off, I think is really nothing to be concerned about.
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for
being here and for traveling all the way from Indiana. I yield back.
Chairman BARR. The gentleman yields back. And I would like to
thank our witnesses for their testimony today.
The Chair notes that some Members may have additional questions for this panel, which they may wish to submit in writing.
Without objection, the hearing record will remain open for 5 legislative days for Members to submit written questions to these witnesses and to place their responses in the record. Also, without objection, Members will have 5 legislative days to submit extraneous
materials to the Chair for inclusion in the record.
Thank you all for your excellent testimony today. This hearing
is now adjourned.
[Whereupon, at 11:16 a.m., the hearing was adjourned.]

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APPENDIX

July 20, 2017

(33)

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Center on

820 First Street NE, Suite 510
Washington, DC 20002

Budget
and Policy
Priorities

Tel: 202-408-1080
Fax: 202-408-1056
center@cbpp.org
'\'1.'"\nv.cbpp.org

Juld0,2017

The Critical Importance of an Independent Central Bank
Testimony by Jared Bernstein, Senior Fellow,
Before the House Committee on Financial Services: Subcommittee
on Monetary Policy and Trade
Chairman Barr and Ranking Member Moore, thank you for the opportunity to testify today.
My testimony begins '"ith a discussion of Title X of the Financial CHOICE Act, which would
undennine the independence and flexibility of the Federal Reserve, one of the few national
institutions that has, in recent years, worked systematically and transparently to improve the
economic lives of working Americans. By aggressively rolling back necessary financial oversight,
much of the rest of the CHOICE Act would be an act of economic amnesia, one that would raise
the likelihood of a return to underpriced risk, bubbles, bailouts, and recession -while Title X of
the Act would hamstring the central bank's ability to respond to the problems engendered by the
rest of the 1\ct.
My testimony also makes the follo"'-ing points:
• The evidence shows that monetary policy as practiced by the Federal Reserve, while not
perfect, significantly boosted jobs and growth in the Great Recession and the recovery that
followed, without generating market distortions.
• While monetary policy was often helpful in terms of pulling forward the current expansion,
fiscal policy, starting around 2010, was uniquely austere and counter-productive, leading to job
loss and a weaker expansion.
• There are policy measures that could be pursued to help those left behind in the current
economy, including both monetary and fiscal policies. In the latter case, however, policies in
budget plans from President Trump and House Republicans, along with the repeal of the
Affordable Care Act, would hurt, not help, disadvantaged workers.

The Impracticalities and Dangers of an Overly Rules-Based Federal Reserve

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It is widely recognized across advanced economics that for central banks to be most effective in
carrying out their mandates, they must be politically independent. Of course, the Federal Reserve
must meet the broad mandates Congress legitimately sets for it, which in the U.S. case is aptly
summarized as full employment at stable prices. But any micro-managing of how the Fed meets its

35
mandates by those who hold political oftlce raises the specter of politicizing the bank's actions. As
current Fed chair Janet Yellen recently wrote, the "framework" wherein the Fed independently
pursues its statutory goals "is now reco!,mized as a fundamental principle of central banking around
the world." 1
Title X of the Choice Act (this title was formerly the stand-alone Fed Oversight Reform and
Modernization Act of 2015) would violate this critical norm.
A remarkable aspect of Title X is that it demands strict adherence to a policy rule, spelling out, in
detailed language, a specific formula that corresponds to economist John Taylor's 1993 eponymous
"rule" and insisting that the Fed's interest-rate-setting committee, the Federal Open Market
Committee (FOMC), follow this rule in setting the federal funds rate (FFR) or face burdensome
regulatory scrutiny.
The formula is specified as follows:
FFR =inflation+ 0.5 *(output gap) + 0.5

* (inflation- 2%)

+ 2%

The "output gap" is specified as the percent deviation between actual and potential GDP, and
inflation is the year-over-year rate of price growth. The first 2% is the Fed's inflation target; the
second is the variable that is these days called r*, which stands for the real interest rate at full
employment and stable inflation that is neither expansionary nor contractionary.
To be clear, my objection is not to the utility of this rule, which is a sensible and intuitive formula
(and a very important contribution to monetary policy). It essentially says tbat when inflation is
above the Fed's target the FFR should go up, and when output is below potential, the FFR should
come down. When inflation is on target and output is at potential, the formula says the real FFR
(nominal FFR int1ation) should be 2%, which is close to its long-term average (though I 'Will soon
show great variance around that average).
Its simplicity, along \vith the fact that certain versions of the rule generally track the actillll
movements in tbe FFR, makes the Taylor rule a standard tool for monetary policy makers. One of
the first questions a monetary economist might ask in assessing the stance of Fed policy is, "where is
the FFR relative to the Taylor rule?" However, while tllis might well be the first question, it should
definitely not be the last.
For one, to say that the rule describes the past means neither that past rates were optimal nor that
the rule's output is appropriate for current or future conditions, a limit Taylor himself recognized in
his scminal1993 paper 2 Therein, he noted that, to complement the information summarized in
policy rules, central bankers needed to analyze " ... several measures of prices (such as the consumer
price index, the producer price index, or the employment cost index) ... expectations of inflation as
measured by futures markets, the term structure of interest rates, surveys, or forecasts from other
analysts ...."Importantly, Taylor argued in that same paper that "there will be episodes where
the zero
monetary policy will need to be adjusted to deal with special factors." One such factor
lower bound on the FFR - is particularly germane in this context.
Advocates of Title X might well inject at this point that the i\ct allows for such flexibility, but I
strongly disagree. As I read the text of the bill, any time the FOMC strays from the "reference
formula" specified in the Act (or a different version of the Taylor rule that had been previously

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36
sanctioned by the elaborate review process I'm about to describe), their rule change would be
subjected to nine separate requirements, many of which are onerous enough to make deviation from
the rule impractical. 3
For example, within 48 hours of an FOMC policy meeting, the Fed chair must "describe the
strategy or rule of the Federal Open Market Committee for the systematic quantitative adjustment of
the Policy Instrument Target to respond to a change in the Intermediate Policy Inputs" (these are
the variables in the rule). She must "include a function that comprehensively models the interactive
relationship between the Intermediate Policy Inputs." She must "include the coefficients of the
Directive Policy Rule that generate the current Policy Instrument Target and a range of predicted
future values for the Policy Instrument Target [the FFR] if changes occur in any Intermediate Policy
Input." And those are just three of the nine Title X requirements.
It is an astounding read from a Congress that claims to be invested in reducing red tape and
complex regulation. It also creates a strong bias towards a solely rule-based approach that is, for
reasons I now explain, increasingly unwise.

The Challenge in Identifying the Taylor Rule
Taylor's work is important and justly influential. I assure the committee, however, that every
single parameter in the Taylor Rule equation is fraught with uncertainty and questioned by the
economics community. Note that:

• There isn't consensus on the best inflation gauge. Taylor recommended the GDP
deflator, but many contemporary applications of the rule use the PCE deflator, often the core
\'ersion (excluding food and energy prices), as the Fed believes core PCE inflation to be the
best predictor of future price growth.
• It's unclear whether the coefficients should be 0.5. Former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, in a
recent piece that explores these very questions, argues that the coefficient on the output gap
should be 1, not 0.5, as this formula more closely tracks the path of the FFR 0\'er the past few
decades (Fed Chair Yellen has also made this point)' Researchers at the Kansas City Fed
agree that "the equal weights on inflation and the output gap in the Taylor rule may not always
be appropriate. While equal weights might be well suited for supply shocks, a greater weight
on the output gap may be better suited for demand shocks." 5 And recall that under Title X,
the Fed would have to justify any such changes to their regulator at the Government
Accountability Office (Gi\0).
• The output gap requires the input of unobserved variables that are increasingly
difficult to nail down. The first such variable is potential GDP, meaning the level of GDP at
full resource utilization, or, alternatively, the "natural" rate of unemployment, meaning the
lowest jobless rate believed to consistent with stable inflation. There is considerable
disagreement as to both the level of potential GDP and the natural rate of unemployment.
lvforem'er, economists can only estimate these values these days within a wide confidence
interval, meaning the formula abO\'e conveys a false sense of certainty. One recent analysis
estimates that the current natural rate of unemployment is between a range that goes from 0
6
to 6 percent

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37
• The level of another key unobserved variable in the rule, the "neutral" real FFR, is also
a source of controversy among economists. This value is set at 2% in Taylor's formula and
in the "reference formula" of Title X (as noted, this variable is called r-star, orr*). But recent
estimates of r*, such as those in Figure 1, show it to vary considerably over time, with some
recent results near zero.
F!Gl!RE

Average and Range of Five R-Star Estimates
4%

3
2

0
-1

1986

1991

1996

2001

2006

2011

2016

• The Fed's explicit inflation target is 2%. But there is ongoing and increasing dissent
on this point, with many economists now arguing that the Fed should raise its inflation
target, in part because it would mitigate the risk of the FFR getting stuck at the "zero lower
bound." 7 Just last week, Chair Yellen recognized that this risk is greater than it has been in
the past, pointing out " ... that tbe economy has the potential where policy could be
constrained by the zero lower bound more frequently than at the time when we adopted our
2% [inflation target]."' \X!hile Yellen noted that raising the target would engender both
benefits and costs, to her credit, she clearly entertained the possibility that raising the inflation
target could be necessary.
• The Fed must work with real-time data, which they must be able to informally adjust if
known biases exist. For example, recent first-quarter GDP growth has appeared to be biased
down, perhaps due to problems with seasonal adjustment. Failing to account for this bias
could exaggerate the output gap. Pushing in the other direction, the unemployment rate has at
times in recent years been biased down due to labor force exits, which in a rule-based
approach could return a higher FFR that would itself be biased up. Under Title X, every time
the Fed wanted to make adjustments to known biases, it would have to justify the adjustment
to regulators at the GAO.
Table 1 takes these issues into account and presents results from many different versions of
Taylor rules for two time periods, the depth of the Great Recession and now. First, note the
sensitivity of the rule to the Yariable choices discussed above. Using real-time data that was available

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38
at the time, the rule as written in Title X hits its low point in the fourth qnarter of 2009, when it
recommended an FFR that was -l.R percent. Switching to the core PCE deflator and plugging in an
r* of ?.ero takes the rule-based FFR to -2.8 percent (see row 2). Upwcighting the slack coefficient
leads to an FFR of almost -7 percent. If we stick with the "reference formula" but usc
unemployment instead of the CDP output gap, \VC
outcomes ranging from -0.6 to -4.1 percent
The range of results for these examples is shown in
2.

Rule No.

A Surplus of Taylor Rules

Low during Great Recession

Now

1

Standard Taylor Rule

-1.8%

3.4%

-2.8%

1.1%

= 0%
(2) but with slack coef = 1

(1) but with PCE core; r*

2

-6.6%

0.6%

4

(1) but with u u* instead of GDP gap

-0.6%

4.0%

5

(3) but with u- u* instead of GDP gap

-4.1%

1.7%

N/A

Actual FFR

0.0%

1.25%

3

Taylor Rule Outcome Is Sensitive to Variable Choices
Taylor Rules (using real-li:r~e data),

Rule4

Ruie1

Rule 2

RuleS

Rule 3

The differences in these results have huge policv implications. The Bcrnanke/Yelkn Feds were
running variants of these rules during the recession, and they appeared to lean towards the version,:
that bumped up the slack coefficient and plugged in a lower r* Gh·en the zero lower bound on the
FFR, results like those in tbe table motivated them to turn to a set of other policies intended to
lower longer-term interest rates, discussed in the next section of this testimony.

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Turning to the second column in the table, tbe Title X reference formula returns an FFR of <)\'er
3 percent, which is at the high end of the range that current FOMC members forecast to be the
long-run, equilibrium nominal rate that they "rill get to post-2019. fly this measure, the current Fed

39
is currently way "behind the curve."' However, plugging a lower r* and weighting slack more heavily
returns FFRs closer to the Fed's current path.
This wide array of results raises numerous strong objections to the rules-based approach. First,
the discretion of the Fed's economists is essential in deciding which values to plug into the formulas.
They should not have to consult regulators, as Title X would reguire them to, each time they tweak
something. Second, they must have the leeway to decide how much weight to give the formula's
output given other economic and data dynamics. Consider today's economy, where the job market is
tight but wage growth is not accelerating and inflation has been decelerating. Though the standard
rule would call for rapid removal of monetary accommodation, doing so would be incautious from
the perspective oflow- and middle-wage workers.
The combination of portentous choices to be made and politics is also a highly toxic mix, which is
precisely why we do not want Congress micromanaging the Fed. The Fed is an independent, highly
functional institution without an explicit political agenda; as such, it can go about its work in a much
more analytical and less fractious political environment than that of today's Congress. "\s a result, its
approach is systematic, timely, and generally predictable, the last of which is important to markets.
Congress, conversely, is both much more political and less efficient. Partisan debates fregucntly
cause deadlines to be moved back or missed. It would be an act of willful denial to not consider the
when considering reducing the
that of the Fed vs. Congress
problem of relative functionality
Fed's independence and increasing Congress's authority over their actions.
To be clear, none of that is to imply that the Fed's monetary policy record is perfect, or that it
doesn't make costly mistakes. The Fed must not be immune from scrutiny and criticism; in fact, I
myself recently administered a heavy dose-"'·" But that's a far cry from giving Congress the power
to reduce the central bank's independence and effectiveness.

The Fed's Large Scale Asset Purchases, a.k.a. Quantitative Easing
In late 2008, when the FFR first began bumping up against the zero lower bound and the
economy was still very weak, the Fed announced that they would soon begin large-scale asset
purchases, or LS1\P, also known as guantitative easing, or QE. The purpose of this initiative, which
involved the purchase of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities (MBS), was to lower the
cost of borrowing by targeting longer·· term interest rates. How successful was the LSAP program
and what, if any, costs did it impose on markets?
In a review of many studies of the impact of the LSAP on longer-term yields, john Williams finds
that the asset purchases had "sizable effects on yields on longer-term securities," but that the precise
magnitudes of the effects were hard to tease out of the data." That said, \'<:'illiams notes:
The central tendency of the estimates [of the LSAP] indicates that $600 billion of [the]
Federal Reserve's asset purchases lowers the yield on ten-year Treasury notes by around 15
to 25 basis points. To put that in perspective, that is roughly the same size move in longerterm yields one would expect from a cut in the federal funds rate of 3/4 to 1 percentage
point.
A simple statistical comparison of the impact of Fed rate changes on real GOP growth suggests a
one-point decline in the FFR raises real GOP by about half-a-percent about 4-6 guarters later.

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Consistent with that result, \Villiams reports on research that finds the Fed's LSAP program lowered
the unemployment rate by one-quarter of a percentage point, which in today's labor market amounts
to 400,000 jobs. Alan Blinder and Mark Zandi, using a macro-model to score QE against a baseline
with no such intervention, estimate that from 2009-14, QE lowered the 10-yearTreasury rate by 1
13
percentage point and raised the level of real GDP by 1.5 percent (see Figure 3).

Quantitative Easing Lowered Rates,
Supported Growth
Cumulative percentage point change in key variables
2.0

1.5

As noted above, part of the Fed's LSAP program involved purchasing MBS backed by the
government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These asset purchases were
intended to "reduce the cost and increase the availability of credit for the purchase of houses" at a
time when the damage from the bursting of the housing bubble was constraining credit and thus
economic activity in that critical sector. l+ \Vhile assessing the impact of the Fed's MBS purchases is
not simple, as many moving parts arc in play, numerous analysts found that the program worked
quickly to lower mortgage rates and help boost the ailing housing market.
Hancock and Passn1ore found, for example, that the Fed's J\1BS purchases lowered mortgage rates
by "roughly 100 to 150 basis points," which they attribute to both the announcement of a "strong
and credible government backing for mortgage markets" and the actual purchases themselves. They
also report on other research, which finds "evidence of substantial announcement effects for the
program, with estimates for the decline in interest rates ranging from 30 basis points to slightly over
100 basis points." 15 John Williams of the San Francisco Fed has argued that the MBS purchases
were the "most effective" part of the Fed's asset purchase programs and that they "ended up having
16
kind of the bigger bang for the buck than the Treasury purchascs." Blinder and Zandi's research
underscores these findings. They report that, "within a short time" of this part of the LSAP
initiative, "homebuycrs with good jobs and high credit scores could obtain mortgages at record low
rates, which helped end the housing crash." 17

The empirical evidence thus suggests that QE should be viewed as a useful tool when the FFR is
constrained by the Zl J), though estimates of its impact are imprecise. However, a number of

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41
critiques have been offered against QE, and any potential downsides must be weighed against its
benefits.
First, some critics worried QE would be highly inflationary. Yet the path of actual inflation has
been consistently below the Fed's 2 percent target rate, so that critique is easy to dismiss.
Second, some have argued tbat, by inflating asset values, and considering that financial assets are
disproportionately held by the wealthy, QE exacerbated wealth inequality. The closest examination
of this assertion is by economist Josh Bivens, who finds the claim to generally be ill-founded. First,
and most importantly, any inequality-inducing impacts of QE must be weighed against the
18
distributional impact of the benefits of monetary stimulus. As Bivens puts it, "Stimulus that
reduces unemployment disproportionately benefits low- and moderate-wage workers and leads to a
compression of earnings." Second, as the discussion of MBS above implies, QE made home loans
more affordable, and Bivens notes that housing "is also the most democratically held asset across
wealth classes." Cogent arguments can be made that there are types of fiscal stimulus that are more
progressive than LSAP, but as I stress below, there were periods in our recent history when needed
fiscal stimulus was not forthcoming, and against this baseline of no positive fiscal impulse, Bivens
correctly notes that, as long as the economy and the job market are below potential, "monetary
stimulus is a strongly progressive policy."
Third, some believe QE distorted financial markets by, for example, crowding out private
investment in Treasuries and allocating too much credit to real estate. This critique too must be
considered in the context of what else might have happened if the Fed had "given up" once the FFR
hit the ZLB. Blinder and Zandi produce some of the most detailed analysis of such counterfactuals,
modelling the impact on GD P, jobs, and unemployment of the policies to offset the last recession.
Their "financial policy response" analysis goes beyond Fed policy, including the TARP and other
credit enhancing programs. But presumably, all such interventions arc relevant to those who object
to alleged financial market distortions.
To try to isolate the impact of the financial system interventions, their counterfactual assumes no
policy steps were taken to "shore up the financial system," but fiscal policies, such as the Recovery
Act, were implemented. They find that in 2014, the financial policy interventions had these effects:
• Real GDP was 5 percent higher than it otherwise would have been;
• The level of payroll employment was 4 million jobs above the alternative;
• The unemployment rate was 6.2 percent compared to the count.erfactuallevel of 8.4
19
percent.
It is incumbent on those making market-distortion arguments to show that avoiding such
distortions would have been worth sacrificing these sorts of gains.

Another factor to consider against this critique is tl1at the rules governing which securities the U.S.
Fed can purchase are actually quite restrictive. As is by now widely known, the LSAP expanded the
Fed's balance sheet by over $4 trillion through purchases of Treasury bonds and MBS. Why did the
Fed not allocate credit more widely, so as not to unduly influence yields in just these two asset
classes? Because they had no choice (according to their read of their charter, at least). This
restriction is unique among modern central banks: the banks of England, .Japan, Canada, and

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42
Europe all have few restrictions on the types of assets they can purchase (though in some cases they
must seek permission from regulators to go into, for example, equity markets).
Moreover, given actual market conditions at the beginning of the LSAP program, lVffiS purchases
were warranted. Following the bursting of the housing bubble, private mortgage lending was
severely constrained; even clearly credit-worthy borrowers in the prime market faced unusually tight
lending standards. Given the private-sector's pull-back in housing finance, the case for crowding-out
distortions is weak. To the contrary, as the Fed is the "lender of last resort" in a credit crisis, its MBS
purchases were well-timed and, as shown above, had their desired impact (with the caveat regarding
the challenge of precise estimation).
In sum, the Fed's LSAP was a necessary and helpful response to the deep recession of 2007-9.
QE lowered longer-term interest rates, perhaps most importantly by delivering credit to the market
for housing finance, at a time when the Fed's short-term interest rate tool, the FFR, was bound by
zero. Again, any claims of negative externalities must be evaluated against the benefits documented
above.
Of course, as the economy closes in on full employment, the Fed has now officially announced its
intentions to reduce its balance sheet by allowing matured loans to roll off (instead of rolling them
over). However, they may want to consider one further potential benefit of their historically large
balance sheet, one raised in recent work by former Fed governor Jeremy Stein eta!. These authors
document the increase in the demand for short-term debt, a demand typically met by overnight
"commercial paper" -very short-term debt instruments that can be prone to dangerous volatility
with big, systemic downside risk. By maintaining an historically large balance sheet (perhaps about
half the size of their current holdings), Stein eta!. argue that the Fed can provide much safer shortterm debt, thereby weakening "the market-based incentives for private-sector intermediaries to issue
too many of their own short-term liabilities." 20
This interesting and practical idea underscores my main recommendation to the committee
regarding the Fed's bond-buying program: when their main tool is tapped out, the central bank must
be able to turn to other methods to boost the economy on behalf of businesses and households.
Restrictions on these practices would be, like the extreme rules-based approach discussed above, a
major mistake.

The One-Two Punch of Monetary and Fiscal Policy and the Dangers of Fiscal
Austerity
While monetary policy in its various forms was highly effective in pushing back against the Great
Recession, it takes both monetary and fiscal policy, working together, to generate a robust recovery.
In fact, when he was Federal Reserve chair, Ben Bernanke made precisely this point in congressional
testimony:
Although monetary policy is working to promote a more robust recovery, it cannot carry the
entire burden of ensuring a speedier return to economic health. The economy's performance
hoth over the near term and in the longer run will depend importantly on the course of fiscal
21
policy

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43
There are at least three reasons for Bernanke's assertion. First, while the LSAP had positive
impacts as just described, once the FFR bits zero, the Fed's firepower is constrained, especially gi,·cn
persistently lower interest rates in recent years (as reflected in Figure 1). Constrained potential for
monetary stimulus raises the relative importance of fiscal stimnlus.
Second, monetary and fiscal stimulus attack different parts of the problem in weak, demandconstrained economies. Monetary stimulus works largely through lowering the cost of borrowing,
but people hurt by high unemplovment may have too little income to take advantage of low interest
rates. Rdatedly, investors
see too little demand to take on new projects. To the extent that fiscal
stimulns puts money in
pockets, say through infrastructure programs, direct job creation,
temporary tax cuts, or increased safery net benefits (e.g., ramped up unemployment insurance), lowand middle-income people themselves can be more likely to take advantage of low botro\v~ng costs,
or to signal to investors through increased consumer demand that they should take ad,-antagc oflow
rates.
Third, monetary and iiscal policies interact in recessions to boost fiscal multipliers. If the
economy is operating at full employment and government spending generates a positive fiscal
impulse, the Fed may be likely to offset such spending by raising rates (this logic is consistent with
the Taylor rules laid out above). But, as Bernanke's comment above suggests, in a recession or weak
that the comment is from February of 2013), the Fed would uot move to offset a
contribution to growth. It is partly for this reason, per Blinder and Zandi' s analysis,
the "bang" for a dollar of fiscal stimulus is larger in recessions or weak rcco\·eries. They
estimate, for example, that each $1 boost in food stamps in 2009 would have been expected to raise
GDP by $1.74, compared to $1.22 in 2015; comparable multipliers tor state fiscal aid are 1.41 in
2009 versus 0.58 in 2015. 22
ln fact, as Figure 4 shows,
Bcrnanke had good reason to
importune Congress for fiscal
austerity- the reduction of fiscal
support when
demand is
the needs
families --·in
2013. The bars show
much
federal spending and tax decisions
are estimated to have reduced
CDP; the blue parts that year

Congress' Fiscal Decisions Reduced Growth
Effect of federal fiscal
percentage points,

real GOP growth by type of policy in
Spending

lilTax

1.0
0.5

-0.5

refer to the prcrnah.1re sun-

-1.0
of the "payroll tax holiday"
-1.5
that was helping to boost workers'
paychecks, while the yellow parts
03 Q4
represent spending cuts driven by
"sequestration." 1\s I've noted in
prior testimony, the reduction
shown (of 1.6 percentage points
that year) cost us "over a million jobs lost based on historical relationships aud about three-quarters
of a point added to unemployment
at a time when the U.S. economy was still trying to recover
from the residual pull of the Great Recession''"

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44
Another way to gauge the extent of budget austerity in recent years is to compare real, per~capita
government spending across historical recoveries. Figure 5, from economist Josh Bivens, shows
spending at all levels of government - federal, state, and local. Bivens notes that " ... per capita
was nearly 3.5
27 quarters into the recovery
government spending in the first quarter of 2016
percent lower than it was at the trough of the Great Recession. By contrast, 27 quarters into the
early 1990s recovery, per capita government spending was 3 percent higher than at the trough, 23
quarters fdlowing the early 2000s recession (a shorter recovery) it was 10 percent higher, and 27
quarters into the early 1980s recovery it was 17 percent higher."'"

Fiscal Austerity Explains Why Recovery
Has Been So Long in Coming
Change in per capita nm,Mr:mPnt spending over last four business cycles
Start of business

120%

110
100

90

C<>m.bt:mrrg the evidence in these figures with that of earlier sections suggests that it was fiscal, not
that failed working people. Throughout the Great Recession and weak recovery,
monetary,
the Fed agg;rcssively applied the tools at its disposal to pull the recovery forward and to try to offset
the sharp demand contraction. Initially, from about 2009~10, stimulative fiscal policy was broadly
the difference in fiscal
complementary to that of the Fed, but shortly thereafter, fiscal impulse
support from one period to the next- turned negative, leaving the Fed to, in Bernanke's words,
" ... carry the entire burden of ensuring a speedier return to economic health.""
The costs of this damaging shift to austerity include the job losses (relative to a baseline where the
fiscal impulse rcmaiued neutral) implied in Figure 4, but there is an even steeper cost as well. By
prolonging the weak expansion and contributing to longer·· term un·· and underemployment than
would othet\N~se ha\·e prevailed, austere fiscal policy likely triggered some degree of "hysteresis."
That is, cyclical damage from the last recession has likely led to a permanently lower level of real
GDP relative to the pre~recession trend.
Figure 6 shows that CBO's estimate of potential GDP is lower now than before the last recession.
The gap in real dollars between today's actual GDP and CBO's downgraded potential, which it has
just about caught up to, amounts to about $225 billion, or around $2,000 per household in the U.S.

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45
Slower trend economic growth and weaker productivity growth, both of which preceded the
downturn, arc likelv partially responsible, but this downward revision is also certainly SUjzQ;estive of
scarring effects. Austere fiscal policy, by prolonging economic weakness, contributes to lasting
economic losses.
6

GOP Output Gap Persists
rn.nnrP<<innAI

Budget Oft ice estimates oi potential GOP in 2016 dol!ars,

-2007 estimate

2017 estimate

-Actual GOP

20
19
18
17

16

Conclusion: What Would Helpful Fiscal and Monetary Policy Look Like Today?
As we enter year nine of the current expansion, there are steps that both monetary and fiscal
policy makers can and should undertake.
Too often, congressional policies assume that aU someone has to do to get a job is to want a job.
But we know that, even as the l 1.S. economy closes in on full employment, labor demand remains
weak for disadvantaged workers in Yarious parts of the country. Measures to help those lcft .. behind
families include:

Targeted, direct job creation (fiscal): Direct job creation can take various forms. At the more
interventionist end of the spectrum, the federal goYcrnmcnt provides a public service job for which
from infrastmcture to
it pays salarv and benefits. Such emplovment could exist in fields
education to child and elder care. r\ less interventionist approach is
government to subsidize
someone's wage in a public, nonprofit, or private-sector job, an approach that was taken during the
Great Recession
through the Temporary Assistance for Nc>edy Families .Emergency Fund (L\NF
El~)
and was ']Uite successful, creating around 250,000 jobs. One careful study from T1\NF EF in
Florida found that, relatiYe to a control group, participants' work and earnings went up not just
during the program, but after it as well, suggesting lasting benefits. r\ broader review of such
programs shows we\-e done a lot more of this sort of job creation than is commonly realized, and
well-designed programs in this space generate a big bang for the buck."

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46
In an effort to operationalize a direct job creation program, Ben Spielberg and I recommend that
policymakers provide a dedicated funding stream (an "employment fund") that can support job
creation efforts and expand when and where the economy is weak 28 Such a program would provide
job creation for those left behind even in good times (whether due to discrimination, weak demand,
or skill mismatches) and play a countercyclical role during recessions.
Targeting higher inflation or the price level (monetary): As noted above, economists
increasingly recognize the risk of hitting the zero lower bound on the FFR. Having the Fed raise
their inflation target or target the price level is increasingly regarded by economists as ways to avoid
the recurrence of the lower bound problem. 29•30 Establishing, for example, a 4 percent inflation
target as opposed to the current 2 percent target would lead to higher nominal interest rates in
recoveries, putting more distance between the nominal FFR and zero. Second, higher inflation
implies lower real interest rates if we again do hit the lower bound (at an FFR of zero, the real
interest rate is the negative of the inflation rate). Advocates of price-level targeting argue that
requiring monetary policy makers to make up for periods of below-target inflation with above-target
inflation would avoid the lower bound and, at the same rime, clearly signal the Fed's preferred
inflation path. Of course, switching to a new target or to level targeting would not be costless, but
any potential costs must be weighed against the potential for avoiding the lower bound problem and
thus maintaining stable growth and unemployment targets.
While both these fiscal and monetary policy interventions would help address the economic
concerns facing many Americans today and offset future periods of weak or recessionary growth, it
is worth underscoring my fundamental conclusion that, in today's hyper-partisan climate, the Federal
Reserve remains a highly functional and efficient institution. I thus strongly urge the committee not
to impose any sort of micromanagement over the Fed, as Title X of the Financial CHOICE Act
would do. Of course, given the Fed's int1uence in the domestic and global economics, their
decisions and actions should be scrutinized by Congress and outside observers. But maintaining the
operational independence of the central bank must remain one of this committee's higher priorities.

1 Janet Yellen, Letter to Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi, November 16,2015,
hrtps://\V\\'\v.fedcralreserve.gov /foia /files/rvan-pelosi-letter-2015 1116.pdf.

B. Taylor, ''Discretion versus policy mles in practice," Camcgie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy 39,
1993, pp. 195-214, http:/lweb.stanford.edul -johntayl!PapersiDiscretion.PDF.

2 John

'H.R. 10- Financial CHOICE Act of 2017, https://www.congrcss.govl1151bills/hrl0/BILLS-115hr!Oeh,p;lf.

.\Ben S. Bernanke, "The Taylor Rule: .A benchmark for monetary policy?," Brookings Institution, April28, 2015,
https: I I w"rw. brookings .edu /blog/ben bernanke 12015 I 04 I o8 I the-til)']Q.r:.rnle-a -benchmark for·monetar:y ·!?OliC)' /.
sPier Francesco As so, George A. Kahn, and Robert Leeson, «The Taylor Rule and the Practice of Central Banking,"

Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, February 2010, https://www.kansasci\)'fcd.org/publicat/reswkpap/pdf/rwplO·
05.pdf.

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47
«Economic projections of Federal Reserve Board members and Federal Reserve Bank presidents under their individual
assessments of projected appropriate monetary policy, June 2017 ," Federal Open Afarkct Committee, June 13-14, 2017,
https: I I W\vw.federalreserve.gov lmonetarypolicy lftlcs I fomcprojtabl20 170614.pdf.

9

Jared Bernstein, "\X,by the Federal Reserve should not raise rates in June," ff7asbi11gton Post, .June 2, 2017,
https: I I v.rww.washingtonpost.com/posteve.cything/\vp /2017 I 06 I 02 /why~the-federal-reserve-should-not-raise-rates injuncl?utm term=.aca51f399a45.

1fl

Jared Bernstein, "Is the Fed fighting an old war?," On The Economy,Junc 15,2017,
http: //jaredbernstein blog.comlis-the-fed- firhtlng-an- old-war I.

11

12 John C. Williams, "Monetary Policy at the Zero Lower Bound," Brookings Institution, January 16, 2014,
https: I I www. brookings.edul wp·content/ uploads 12016106 I 16· monctm··policy-zcro-lower-bound -williams .pdf.

and Policy
1.:. Alan S. Blinder and Mark Zandi, "The Financial Crisis: Lessons for the Next
Priorities, October 15, 2015, Jill~W!lS:!.~;llpjl&!rg.l_r_<;:!!£i!rQJ~!:Q!!Q!l1YJ_J:ill:.:h!l!!l:!Qlll:.\;!lli!>.:l!~llli:iQ.!C:1lJ£.lli2;l:J;ffi!:.

lS Diana Hancock and Wayne Passmore, "Did the Federal Reserve's ~·fBS Purchase Proi:,l'fatn Lower :Mortgage RaJes? ,"
Federal Reserve Board Finance and Economics Discussion Series, January 2011,
https://www.fedcralreservc.gov /pubs/feds/20111201101/201101pap.pdf.

'' .Jeanna Smialek, "Fed's Williams Prefers MBS Buying to ECB Tactics in Next Crisis," Bloomberg, July 6, 2016,
https: I I v.ww. bloombergquint.com /global-economics /2016/07 I 06 I fed-s-williams-prefers- mbs-buying-to-ccb-tactics-innext·crisis.
Blinder and Zandi.

17

Bivens, "Gauging the Impact of the Fed on Inequality During the Great Recession," Brookings Institution, June
1, 2015, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-contentluploads/2016/06/Iosh Bivens Inequality F!N.-\L.pdf.
18 Josh

19

Blinder and Zandi.

Robin Greenwood, Samuel G. Hanson, and Jeremy C. Stein, "'The Federal Reserve's Balance Sheet as a FinancialStability Tool," 2016 Economic Policy Symposium, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, September 2016,
https:llscholar.ban·ard.cdu/files/stein/filcs/jackson hole ghs 20160907 final.pdf.

20

Ben S. Bernanke, "Semiannual ~foneta!}' Policy Report to the Congress," Committee on Banking, Housing, and
Urban Affairs, February 26, 2013, https: I /w\vw.fcderalrcserve.gov /newseYents /testimony /bcrn-anke20130226a.htm.
12

Blinder and Zandi

25

Bcrnanke, ''Semiannual i\fonetary Policy Report to the Congress."

26

LaDonna Pavetri, "Subsidized Johs: Providing Paid En10l•ovrncr1t
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, April 2, 2014, ntJ~LJ.:.IY'.Y:\lW:.QJ;'!hl1!'g.illThC\1J;llilliLl!!!;UJililJ!lli.l..!ll§J...'bU±.!J:=
pavetti.pdf.
IndiYar Dutta-Gupta, Kali Grant, 't-.fatthew Eckel, and Peter Edelman, ''Lessons Learned from 40 Years of Subsidized
Employment Progf'Ams," Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, Spring 2016,
https: I I W\lvW.law.georgetown.edu /academics I centers-institutes lpovct~' -inequality /current-projects I upload /GCPlSubsidized. Employment· Paper· 20160413 .pdf.

27

Bernstein and Ben Spielberg, "Preparing for the Next Recession: Lessons from the American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act," Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, March 21, 2016,
https: I I W\\'W.c bpp.org/research /economy I preparing-for-the-next- recession-lessons-fromNthe-amcrican- recovery-and.

28 Jared

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48
29 Josh

Bivens, "Is 2 percent too lO\v?," Economic Policy lnstitute,June 9, 2017,
http: II www.epi.org I files I pdf/129 551.pdf.

30 John

C. Williams, "Preparing for the Next Storm: Reassessing Frameworks and Strategies in a ]_.,Qw R-star World,"
Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, ~fay 8, 2.017, http://www.frbsf.org/economic-research/publications/economicletter 120 17 /may /preparing- for-next -storm-price-lcvel-targeting-in-low--r-star-world -speech 1.

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49
MONETARY-FISCAL POLICY INTERACTIONS

Eric M. Leeper*
Testimony before the Subcommittee on Monetary Policy and Trade
Committee on Financial Services
U.S. House of Representatives
.July 20, 2017

Chairman Barr, Ranking Member Moore, subcommittee members, thank you for inviting
me to talk with you.
The title of this hearing, "l\1onetary vs. Fiscal Policy," frames the issue in an unfortunate
way. That title harks back to the unproductive Keynesian-monetarist debates of the 1960s
and 1970s. As I hope my comments make clear, a. more constructive way to think about this
is as "monetary and fiscal policy." This is not merely a semant.ie point-it. is fundamental
economics. I commend the subcommittee for delving into this

undera.ppn~ciated

topic.

1 POLICY INTERACTION BASICS
Research over the past. 25 years emphasizes that monetary and fiscal policy jo-intly determine
the economy-wide level of prices and the rate of inflation. 1 Out of that literature has emerged
the understanding that two distinct combinations of monetary and fiscal policy behaviorpolicy regimes-can determine the price level and stabilize the level of government debt.

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'Rudy Professor of Economics, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405, eleeper@indiana.edu. I thank
'lbdd B. Walker for extensive conversations aud comments.
1
Early contributors include Leeper (1991), Sims (1994), Woodford (1995), and Cochrane (1999). Leeper
and Walker (2013) and Leeper and Leith (2017) are recent. overviews.

50

1.1 POLICY REGIMES

Table 1 summarizes the policy mixes that determine inflation and stabilize debt.
The first regime reflects the conventional view that monetary policy actively adjusts
the policy interest rate to lean against inflation, while fiscaJ policy passively adjusts primary
budget surpluses- revenues less expenditures, not including interest payments on government
debt-to stabilize the long-run debt-GDP ratio. Taylor's famous rule falls into this regime:
the central bank raises the policy interest rate more than one-for-one with the inflation rate
and raises the interest rate more modestly when the output gap increases [Taylor (1993)J.
Because monetary policy focuses on stabilh:ing inflation and the real economy, fiscal policy
must ensure that government debt remains well behaved. When fiscal policy makes

taxe~

rise

with the level of real government debt by more than enough to cover interest payments and
some of the principal, the debt-GDP ratio will be stable in the long run. Many economists
believe this regime prevails during "normal" economic times.

Policy
Authority

Monetary
Fiscal

Monetary-Fiscal Policy Regimes that
Determine Inflation and Stabilize Debt
Conventional
Alternative
View
Vie1t1
Aggressively raises interest
Weakly raises interest
rate with inflation
rate with inflation
Haises primary surplus
Pursues other objectives
with real debt
besides debt stabilization

--

Table 1: Monetary-Fiscal Policy Mixes
A second, alternative, regime can also determine inflation and stabilize debt. In this
regime, fiscal policy pursues other objectives by setting primary surpluses independently of
debt and the price leveL Monetary policy chooses the interest rate so that it responds only
weakly-or not at all-to inflation, which permits expansions in government debt to raise
the price leveL Higher price levels reduce the real value of debt to make the debt-GDP ratio
stable. Since the United States left the gold standard in April 1933, there have been several

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51
LEEPFH

\\'mrn::\ TESTJ\10:\Y: POLICY l:\TE!L\CTIO:\S

instances in which the Federal Reserve seems to have followed this alternative behavior:
from April 1933 until about 1936; throughout World War II until the Treasury-Fed Accord
in March 1951; much of the 1970s; the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath, 2 And there
have been times when fiscal policy pays scant attention to debt in order to pursue other
objectives: despite extremely high war debt, in 1948 Congress overrode President Truman's
veto and cut taxes; the Economic Recovery Plan of 1981 increased primary deficits even as
the debt-GDP ratio was rising from its post-war low in the early 1980s; both the Economic
Growth a11d Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 and the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief
Reconciliation Act of 2003 cut taxes at times of rising debt; the American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act of 2009 increased spending and cut some taxes despite rising debta
L2 FISCAL CONSEQUENCES OF MONETARY POLICY
To keep this discussion focused, in what follows I consider only the conventional mix of
monetary and fiscal policy behavior, That policy combination embeds the Taylor rule as one
example of monetary policy behavior,
Basic economic reasoning tells us that monetary policy actions have fiscal consequences.
Let's start with something routine: the rederal Reserve raises the federal funds rate in order
to reduce inflation, This isn't the end of the story: a. higher funds rate tends to raise all
interest rates, including those on government debt, so interest payments on outstanding debt
increase,
Now fiscal policy comes into play, Those higher interest payments require higher taxes or
lower expenditures in the future to service the debt, The message is: to successfully reduce
inflation, tighter monetary policy necessarily requires tighter fiscal policy at some point. That
fiscal response is essential for the Fed to be able to control inflation,
What happens if the fiscal response is not forthcoming because the fiscal authority never
Taylor (1999), Clarida, Galf, and Gertler (2000), Lubik and Schor!heide (2004), and Davig and
Leeper (2006).
3 See Davig and Leeper (2006), Bhattarai, Lee, and Park (2016), and Bianchi and Ilut (2017).

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adjusts taxes or spending·( The dollar value oi government debt grows to hnance interest
payments. Bond holders see their interest receipts rise, but don't anticipate higher offsetting
taxes. They feel wealthier and demand more goods and services. Higher demand raises
prices, counteracting the Fed's original intention to lower inflation.
Appropriate fiscal backing for monetary policy is critical for the Fed to achieve price
stability.

2 U.S. AND INTERNATIONAL EXAMPLES
It is helpful to consider actual instances when policy behavior departed from the conveutional
monetary-fiscal regime.
2.1 AN IMPORTANT U.S. HISTORICAL CASE
Recovery from the Great Depression illustrates that the alternative monetary-fiscal policy
mix has been an explicit policy choice 4 President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in I\ larch
1933 at the lowest point of the Great Depressiou. Compared to the third quarter of 1929,
real GNP was 36 percent lower, industrial production had been cut in half, unemployment
rose from almost nothing to a quarter of the workforce, and the price level had fallen 27
percent. The new president committed to raise the price level by achieving " ... the kind
of a dollar which a generation hence will have the same purchasing power and debt-paying
power as the dollar we hope to attain in the near future" !Roosevelt (1933b)]. The first step
toward permanently raising the price level was to abandon the gold standard in favor of
what Roosevelt called a "managed currency" ]Roosevelt (1933a)J.
Abar1doning convertibility of the dollar to gold, which included abrogating the gold clause
on all future and past public and private contracts, changed the nature of government debt.
Under convertibility, even though government bonds paid in dollars, the Treasury was required to convert those dollars into gold on demand. When the Treasury didn't have the gold
draws on Jacobson, Leeper, and Preston (2017).

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on hand, it had to acquire the gold, possibly through higher taxes, The new fiat. currency
standard broke the automatic link between new bonds and future surpluses: government
bonds were simply promises to pay dollars, which the U.S, government could freely create
without adjusting taxess
Roosevelt used three strategies to convince the public that higher debt would not necessitate higher future taxes, First, he made policy state-dependent, saying he would run
bond-financed deficits until the economy recovered, Second, he emphasized the temporary
nature of the policy by distinguishing between the "regular budget," which he balanced, and
the "emergency budget," whose deficits were driven by relief spending, Finally, Roosevelt
raised the political stakes by pitching economic recovery as a "war for the survival of democracy" ]Roosevelt (1936)], The strategies appeared to work because expected inflation began
to rise by spring 1933 [Jalil and Rua (2016)].
Monetary policy behaved passively through the recovery, After the United States left
gold, the Fed no longer needed to keep interest

rate~'>

high to staunch the outflow of gold

and the New York l:'ed reduced its discount rate to L5 percent in February 1934, where it
remained until August 1937, when it was lowered to 1 percent. From November 1933 to
February 1937, the Fed conducted no open-market purchases of Treasury securities, One
contemporary observer wrote that the Federal Re.serve "served merely as a technical instrument for effecting the Treasury's policies" [Johnson (1939, p. 211)]. Clearly, the Fed did
not follow anything resembling a Taylor rule, which permitted the expansion in government
debt to stimulate the economy, as it does in the alternative policy mix,
Economic recovery was rapid, Real GNP returned to its pre-depression level in 1937,
Price levels-consumer and wholesale price indexes and the G?\P deflator-rose but fell
short of regaining their levels in the 1920s, Historians like Friedman and Schwartz (1963)
and Romer (1992) attribute recovery to money supply growth brought about by gold inflows
from a politically unstable Europe, inflows which the Treasury chose not to sterilize, But
all but the 10 percent of Treasury debt that is indexed to inflation is also merely a promise to
pay future dollars.

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that explanation overlooks the significant expansion in government debt that took place. The
dollar value of federal debt outstanding doubled in the 6 years after leaving the gold standard,
rcfl<'cfing the substantial fiscal stimulus associated with Roosevelt's relief programs.
Hcmarkably, this expansion in nominal debt did not. raise the debt-GNP ratio, Figure 1
plots the par and market values of gross federal debt as percentages of GNP from 1920 to
1940. The vertical line marks departure from gold in April 1933. After bottoming out. in

September 1929 at 15,6 percent, the debt-GNP ratio rose steadily while the United States
was still on gold, reaching 44.7 percent in l\-larch 1933. It. then remained below 45 percent
through the end of 1937, Economic recovery raised both the price level and the rcallc,,el of
economic activity, ensuring that the debt-GNP rat.io was stable.
50
45
40

- - P a r Value
--- ~- Market Value

1922

1924

1926

1928

1930

1932

1934

1936

1938

1940

Figure 1: Par and market. value of groos federal debt as a percentage of GNP, Source: Hall
and Sargent (20!5), Balke and Gordon (1986), and authors' calculations, Vertical line marks
dcpnrt.ure from the gold standard.

In this alternative policy mix, the Fcdcra.l Reserve behaved passivdy, permitting the fiscal
expansion to raise aggregate demand and with it, prices and output, With this policy mix,
tlwrc need not be any conflict between fiscal expansion and fiscal sustainability, as the data

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in figure 1 neatly illustrate,

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Polieylnteras!
Rate(Selie}

r--------1

J.l12tl15

Figure 2: Brazilian monetary policy interest rate and consumer price inflation rate, Source:
IHS Global Insight.

2,2

RECENT INTERNATIONAL CASES

Countries have not always provided appropriate fiscal backing 6

In recent years, Brazil

followed a fiscal policy that was unresponsive to debt, while its central bank sought to
target inflation,

The 1988 constitution indexed gO\wnmcnt benefits to inflation, which

placed 90 percent of expenditures out of legislative controL At thf' same time, tax increases
were politically infeasible, lca(!ing to growing primary deficits with no pros]wct of reversaL
When inflation began to rise, the central hank aggressively raised interest rates, just as the
Taylor principle instructs, Debt service rose, driving up aggregate demand and inflation.
In December 2015, the primary deficit was L88 pcr('cnt of GDP, but the gross deficit-·primary plus interest paymcnts·-was 10.:-\4 percent of output, Figure 2 plots Banco Central
do Bra.sil's policy rate, the Selic, along with the consumer price inflation rate from 2013
through 2015, Despite a doubling of the policy rate, the inflation rate rose by nearly 5
percentage points: monetary policy does not appear to be controlling inflation,
It is tempting to infer that Brazil's problems stemmed from dysfunctional fiscal polHY Surely, if fiscal policy follows well-specified guidelines that ensure "responsible" fiscal
(2017) discusses t hcsc and other ('Xamplcs in detail.

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behavior, monetary policy will be able to control inflation.
Two European countries have had fiscal rules for some years and take those rules seriously. By "seriously" l mean the governments actually follow the rules 7 Sweden's Fi.~cal

Pol-icy F'mrnewo-rk lays out the general principles that guide fiscal policy [Swedish Government (2011)], Each elected government then adopts the particular rules it will follow to be
consistent. with the framework. Currently, Sweden aims for a 1/3 percent of GDP target for
net lending (the surplus inclusive of interest payments) and is now considering also imposing
a 35 percent of GDP "debt anchoL" This anchor is akin to a target around which debt will
fluctuate within prespecified bounds,
Since a. nationwide referendum in 2001, Switzerland has followed a debt brake, which
limits spending to average revenue growt;h over several years, If spending differs from this
limit, the difference is debited or credited to an adjustment account that has to be corrected
in coming years, Debt brakes have a. built-in error-correction mechanism intended to restrict.
the size of government debt 8
The top panel of figure 3 suggests that Swedish and Swiss fiscal rules have worked to limit
debt growth. In both countries, debt has steadily fallen over the past 15 years and now is
about. :35 percent of GDP. Remarkably-and these two countries may he the sole exceptions--debt either continued to fall or was flat. during the financial crisis, This stunning outcome is
a testament to the effectiveness of fiscal rules that are followed,
But this prudent fiscal policy may have come at. a cost in terms of inflation targeting,
Both countries have 2 percent inflation targets that have been missed,

In Switzerland,

inflation has been persistently below target since the beginning of 2009, Swedish inflation
has been below 2 percent for the past. five and a half year. Low inflation rates arc not the
result of inadequate efforts by monetary polity: policy interest rates have been negative since
the beginning of 2015,
The Swedish and Swiss cases illustrate that fiscal backing for monetary policy must be
7 This

draws on Leeper (2016),
"Sec Danningcr (2002) and Bodmer (2006) for additional details and analyses,

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Figure 3: Deht-GDP ratio and CP! inflation rates iu Sweden ami Switzerland.
Statistics Sweden, Swedish National Debt Office, and Swiss l\'ationai Bank.

Source~:

symmetric. \Vhen monetary policy reduces interest rates and interest payments on government debt, fiscal policy needs to rednuc taxes. Fiscal rules designed primarily to n'dncc
government debt may interfere with the symmetry of fiscal backing.
These international examples offer suggestive evidence of how monetary and fiscal policies
that are inconsistent with each other ean produce undesirable economic outcornf's. Each is
a cn;;e in which monetary and fiscal authorities independently pursue their objectives and

fiscal authorities fail to pnwidP the fiscal backing needed for the central banks to control
inflation.

3 CURRE:\'T 1LS. S!TUATIO:\'
Economic developments in the United States today underscore the need to understand the

joint impacts of monetary and fiscal policies.

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3_ 1 RECENT DATA

F'or almost a decade, UB_ monetary policy has been highly stimulative and federal government debt has grown rapidly, yet inflation has remained benign_ A few facts from table table

2 and figure 5:
• Short-term interest rates have been below 1 percent for the past nine years,
• Over that period, bank reserves increased by a factor of 52_
• Inflation, by any measure, has averaged less than 2 percent since 2008_
• Longer-term Treasury yields have been trending down, suggesting that markets do not
expect inflation to pick up,

FPderal funds rate
3-month Trea.sury rate
Core CPJ
Core PCE
GDP Deflator

Average Annual Rate
2008Ql-2017Ql
0,37
0.26
1.82
1.57
1.53

Ratio of Value
in 2017Ql to
Value in 2008Ql

51.7

Bank reserves
Gross deht

2.0

Table 2: Core CPI is less food and energy; Core PCE is personal consumption expenditures
excluding food ;md energy; GDP deflator it; implicit price deflator; Bank reserves are total
reserves of depository institutions; Gross debt is the market value of gross federal debt,
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Federal Reserve Board.
Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

How can this happen?
Massive growth in bank reserves hasn't created inflation be(:ause banks happily hold idle
and safe reserves whose yield exceeds those in the federal funds and short-term Treasury

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Weekly Interest Rates

1.2 r--;:_=:c_=.;:F::=e=de2ca=l~Fu=n=ds:::R=at=e::;-,--~-~--~-~--:1
3-Month Treasury Bill
-Interest on Reserves

-w-~-

-

-

0.8

2010

2012

2011

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

Figure 4: Source: tcderal Reserve Board.
markets [figure 4j, By holding onto excess reserves, banks have not expanded deposits and,
therefore, broad monetary measures at unusually high rates.
There is another fact with which this committee is familiar:
• Gross federal debt has doubled since 2008 [figure 5],
\Vhy hasn't this been inflatiow>ry?
In a phrase: bond-market pessimism.
During the financial crisis. there was a worldwide flight to safety: investors had an
insatiable appetite for Treasuries. This demand, perhaps more than monetary policy actions,
has h~pt bond yields low. That appetite continues today, ensuring demand more than absorbs
the expanding supply of bonds. As long as people expect future surpluses will adjust to
financ<' the growing debt, the expansion in debt will not significantly raise aggregate demand
and the price leveL
Tlw question for monetary policy is: what happens to inflation-and the l'cd's ability
to

control it-when the thirst for safety is quenched? The answer hinges very much on Lhe

.fiscal response.

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Recent U.S. Data

Figure 5: Core consumer price inflation is CPI all items less food and energy and 10-Year
Treasury constant maturity rate are both in percentages on the left scale; total reserves of
depository institutions are in trillions of dollars on the left scale, Gross federal debt is the
market value in trillions of dollars on the right scah Source: :Federal Reserve Board, Bureau
of Labor Statistics, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas,

\Vhat f've dc:.scribed arises naturally from a fiscal policy that aims to stabilize the government
debt-GDP ratio, What's important is that the private sector understands and believes that
the fiscal response will eventually take place, Of course, when debt levels are low, the changes
in debt service and, therefore, taxes, are modest, Debt service has also been modest during
the past decade because intcn,st rates have been exceptionally low,
The fortuitous fiscal effects of low interest rates may be coming to an encL
This committee has heard previous testimony about the process of monetary policy "normalization," But there is an important fiscal component to normalization that I want to
highlighL Here is a little accounting exercise, The market value of gross federal debt is
now a bit higher than nominal G D P, If interest rates on government bonds rise from current
levels to 6 percent, roughly the post-World War II average, interest payments will rise over
time by about 5 percent of GDP or close to $1 trillion,
Debt service now consumes about 10 percent of federal expenditures, In the late 1980s

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and early 1990s, at its post-war peak, debt service was 20 percent of expenditures--and then
the debt-GDP ratio was under 60 percenL Evidently, interest-rate normalization carries
substantial fiscal implications.

4 POLICY RULES
Formal economic models posit algebraic rules that govern policy behavioL These rules
are necessarily extreme simplifications of actual policy behavior, designed to highlight how
specific components of systematic policy behavior affect the economy's operation, They are
not intended to be a complete description of how policy behaves in every possible situation,
Policy rules may be descriptive or prescriptive,

Moving from describing behavior to

prescribing behavior is, to me, a very large leap. At this point, the most we can ever say
is that a particular simple rule seems to deliver good economic welfare across some set of
formal models. But those models embed a great many stated and unstated assumptions that
may or may not. apply to the actual econonw Assumptions include formulations of private
economic behavior, particularly private-sector expectations, and a range of shocks that may
hit the economy.
The studies do have a common thread: All analyses that conclu.de beneficial outcomes
from Taylor-type ndes for monetary policy maintain the assumption that fiscal policy

aL~o

obeys a mle that a.ppmpria.tely backs the monetary policy behavioT,

Of course, l do not advocate completely discretionary policy uutethered by guiding principles. Both monetary and fiscal policy must be guided by broad economic objectives. And
both monetary and fiscal policy authorities must he held accountable for achieving those
objectives,
Underlying the discussion in this testimony is the need for systematic fiscal backing for
monetary policy Whether the Federal Reserve follows a Taylor rule, some other rule, or no
algebraic formulation, so long as its mandate include price stability, its success hinges on
stable and reliable fiscal backing.

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REFERENCES
BALKE, N,, AND K J_ GORDON (1986): "Appendix B: Historical Data," in The American
Business Cycle,- Continuity and Change, ed_ by R J, Gordon, pp. 781-850, University of
Chicago Press, Chicago,
BHATTARAI, S,, J, W, LEE, AND \\1_ Y. PARK (2016): "Policy Regimes, Policy Shifts, and
UB, Business Cycles," Review of Economics and Statistics, 98(5), 968-983,
BIANCHI, F,, AND C. ILUT (2017): "Monetary/Fiscal Policy Mix and Agents' Beliefs,"
Review of Economic Dynamics, 26(0ctober), 113-139,
BODMER, F, (2006): "The Swiss Debt Brake: How it Works and What Can Go Wrong,"
Schweizerische Zeitschrift fiir Volkswirtschaft und Statistik, 142(3), 307-330.
CLARIDA, R, J, CALf, AND 1\1, GERTLER (2000): "Monetary Policy Rules and Macroeconomic Stability: Evidence and Some Theory," Quarterly Jo1J.mal of Economics, 115(1),
147· 180,
COCHRANE, J. R (1999): "A Frictionless View of U.S, Inflation," in NBER Macmeconomics
Annual1998, ed, by B.S. Bernanke, and J ..1- Roternberg, vol. 13, pp. 32a-384. MIT Press,
Cambridge, MA.
DANNINGER, S. (2002): "A New Rule: 'The Swiss Debt Brake'," llVIF Working Paper
WP /02/18, January.
DAVTG, T., AND E. M. LEEPER (2006): "Fluctuating iv!acro Policies and the Fiscal Theory,"
in NBER Macroeconomics Anmwl 2006, ed. by D. Acernoglu, K Rogoff, and M. Woodford,
voL 21, pp. 247-298. MIT Press, Cambridge.
FRIEDMAN, M., AND A . .J. ScHWARTZ (1963): A Monetary Histo-ry of the United States,
1867-1960. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
HALL, G. J., AND T. J. SARGENT (2015): "A History of U.S. Debt Limits," Manuscript,
New York University, December 8 .
.JACOBSON, M. M., E. M. LEEPER, AND B. PRESTON (2017): "Recovery of 1933,"
Manuscript, Indiana University, February.
JALIL, A. J., AND G. RUA (2016): "Inflation Expeetations and Recovery in Spring 1933,"
E:cplorations in Economic History, 62(0ctober), 26-50.
JOHNSON, JR., G. G. (1939): The Treasnry and Monetary Policy, 1933-1938. Russell &
Russell, New York.
LEEPER, E. M. (1991): "Equilibria Under 'Active' and 'Passive' Monetary and Fiscal Policies," Jo·urnal of Monetary Economics, 27(1), 129-147.
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Economic Review, 3, 109-125.

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- - - (2017): "Fiscal Analysis is Darned Hard," in Rethinking Fiscal Policy After the
Crisis, cd. by Ludovft 6dor, pp. 2:l-70. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K.
LEEPER., E. M., AND C. LEITH (2017): "Understanding Inflation as a Joint ;\fonetary-Fi,;cal
Phenomenon," in Handbook of Macr-oeconomics, eel. by J. B. Taylor. and H. Uhlig, vol. 2B,
pp. 2305··2416. Elsevier Press, Amsterdam.
LEEPER., E. M., AND T. B. \VALKER. (2013): "Perceptions and Misperceptions of Fiscal
Inflation,'' in Fiscal Policy After the Financial Crisis, eel. by A. Alesina, and F. Giavazzi,
pp. 255-299. University of Chicago Press. Chicago.
LtHllK, T. A., AND F. SCHORFHEIDE (2004): "Testing for Indeterminacy: An Application
to U.S. Monetary Policy," American Economic Review, 94(1), 190--217.
ROMER., C. D. (1992): "What Ended the Great Depression?," Jo·urnal of Economic History,
52(4), 757·784.
ROOSEVELT, F. D. (1933a):
"Fireside Chat," October 22, 193:1. Online by
Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.
http://www.presidency.ucsb.edn/w s/?pid=14537.
(1933b):
"Wireless to the London Conference," July 3, 1933. Online
by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.
http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/w s/?pid=14679.
- - - (1936): "Acceptance Speech for the Renomination for the Presidency," Philadelphia,
PA, June 27. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency
Project. http: I /www. presidency. ucsb. edu/ws/?pid=15314.
SIMS, C. A. (1994): "A Simple Model for Study of the Determination of the Priee Level and
the Interaetion of lllonetary and Fiscal Policy," Economic Theory, 4(3), 381-:399.
SWEDISH GOVERNMENT (2011 ): The Swedish Fiscal Policy F'ra.mework. Regeringskansliet,
Stockholm.
TAYLOR, J. B. (1993): "Discretion versus Policy Rnles in Pradic:e," Carnegie-Rochester
Conference Series on Public Policy, a9, 195-214.
- - - (1999): "An Historical Analysis of Monetary Policy Rnles," in Monetary Policy
Rules, cd. by .J. B. Taylor, pp. 319-341. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
WOODFORD, M. (1995): "Price-Level Determinacy Without Control of a lllonetary Aggregate," Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy, 43, 1-46.

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64
Sorting Out Monetary and Fiscal Policies

Mickey D. levy*
Testimony before the Subcommittee on Monetary Policy and Trade
Committee on Financial Services
U.S. House of Representatives
July 20, 2017

Chairman Barr, Ranking Member Moore and Members of the Committee, I appreciate this opportunity
to present my views on monetary and fiscal policies. Both have gone off-course. Excessively easy
monetary policy, marked by a massive increase in the Federal Reserve's balance sheet and sustained
negative real interest rates, has failed to stimulate faster economic growth, but has distorted financial
behavior and involves sizeable risks. Fiscal policies have resulted in an unhealthy rise in government
debt, and projections of dramatic further increases involve incalculable risks. Monetary and fiscal
policies interact in undesirable ways. The Fed's expanded scope of monetary policy has blurred the
boundaries with fiscal and credit policies, and the ever-growing government debt may eventually
impinge on the Fed and its independence.

A reset of monetary and fiscal policies is required. The Fed has begun to normalize monetary policy, so
at this point, a shift in fiscal policy is much more pressing.

The Fed must continue to raise interest rates and begin unwinding its balance sheet, but be more
aggressive than indicated in its current strategy, including eventually fully unwinding its holdings of
mortgage-backed securities (MBS). A full normalization of monetary policy would benefit economic
performance and improve financial health. Equally important, the Fed must acknowledge the
limitations of monetary policy and step back from policy over-reach, including credit allocation and its
excessive focus on short-term fine-tuning.

The longer-run projections of government debt are alarming, and must be taken seriously (see Chart 1).
Congress must develop and implement a strategy that guarantees sound longer-run finances. This
requires tough choices but the costs of inaction are rising. Many acknowledge the risks of rising debt

for future economic performance, but in reality the burdens of the government's finances

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*Chief Economist of Berenberg Capital Markets, llC for the Americas and Asia, and member, Shadow
Open Market Committee. The Views expressed in this paper are the author's own and do not reflect
those of Berenberg Capital Markets, LlC.

65
are already affecting current economic performance and the government's allocation of national
resources. Witness how the persistent increases in entitlement programs and concerns about high
government debt squeeze spending on infrastructure, research and development and other activities
that would enhance economic performance. Under current laws, these budget constraints-at the
Federal as well as those facing State and municipal governments-will only increase in severity.

Congress's fiscal agenda must be two-pronged. First, you must develop and enhance programs and
initiatives that directly address the sources of undesired economic and labor market underperformance
while restructuring and trimming spending programs that are ineffective and wasteful. Second, you
must enact laws that phase in reforms of the entitlement programs over lengthy periods to constrain
the projected growth of future spending in a fair and honest way, protecting lower income retirees
while providing sufficient time for older workers to plan for retirement.

I fully understand the frustrations stemming from the under-performance of the economy in recent
years-the sizeable pockets of persistently high unemployment and low wages facing many working-age
people, and weak trends in business investment and productivity that underlie disappointingly slow
growth. We all want better performance. But the issue is how to achieve it.

Neither the Fed's sustained monetary ease nor high deficit spending address structural challenges
facing labor markets, business caution in expansion and investing, weak productivity and ather critical
issues. This is particularly apparent with the unemployment rate at 4.4%, below standard estimates of
full employment.

The reality is monetary policy cannot create permanent jobs, improve educational attainment or skills,
permanently reduce unemployment of the semi-skilled, or raise productivity or boost real wages.
Rather, monetary policy is an aggregate demand tool. The major sources of underperformance involve
structural challenges that are beyond the Fed's ability to address. Yet in recent years, there has been
excessive reliance on the Fed. All too frequently, analysts and observers opine "fiscal policy is
dysfunctional so the Fed has to ease policy". This assumes that moneta.Y policy and fiscal policy are two
interchangeable levers. They are not. Monetary policy is not a substitute for fiscal policy. Monetary

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policy controls interest rates and the amount of money in the economy, which influences aggregate
demand and longer-run inflation.

Fiscal policy operates differently. Government spending programs and tax structures allocate national
resources-for income support, national defense, health care, public goods like infrastructure and an
array of other activities-and create incentives favoring certain activities while discouraging others. In a
critical sense, the magnitude and mix of spending programs and the structure and details of tax
policies-along with the magnitudes of deficit spending-reveal the nation's priorities set by fiscal
policymakers. These allocations of national resources and how specific spending and tax provisions
influence households and businesses are key inputs to economic performance, productivity and
potential growth.

In recent decades the most pronounced change in the government budget is the rapid expansions of
Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The objectives of these entitlements are laudable, and they are
critical for government and society. However, the resulting dramatic rise in the share of government
spending allocated to income support and health, along with the rising concerns about the rising debt,
has squeezed spending on other programs, including those that enhance longer-run productive capacity.
Can these government programs be improved, made more efficient or modified in ways that maintain
their objectives? Yes. Congress must cut through budget categorizations like "mandatory spending"
and "discretionary spending programs" and identify ways to improve the efficiency of these programs
while maintaining their intent.

Aside from monetary and fiscal policies, labor market performance and business decisions are affected
by a growing web of economic and labor regulations imposed by the Federal, state and local
governments. Private industries add to the list of regulatory requirements, including the expanding
imposition of occupational certification requirements and other practices like "non-compete" job
contracts. Certainly, while some of these government regulations and industry rules serve important
roles, many constrain the mobility of a sizeable portion of the labor force, limit job opportunities and are
very costly to the economy. Obviously, these are beyond the scope of monetary and fiscal policy.

I mention regulatory policies in the same breath as monetary and fiscal policies because each has
unique economic effects. In order to improve performance and standards of living, we need to address

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the sources of the underperformance with the proper policy tools, rather than rely on standard
monetary and fiscal stimulus that are unlikely to have desired outcomes.

The Fed's expanded scope. The Fed deserves credit for its quantitative easing (QE) in 2008-2009 that
helped restore financial stability and end the deep recession. The paralysis in the mortgage and shortterm funding markets was scary and truly a crisis. The Fed's aggressive interventions and asset
purchases, including MBS and its "bailout" of AIG, directly involved the Fed in credit allocation and fiscal
policy. At the time, Fed Chairman Bernanke explicitly identified them as temporary emergency
measures, and stated that the Fed would exit them on a timely basis.

But the efficacy of the Fed's dramatic expansion of its large scale asset purchase programs (LSAPs) and
targeting the Fed funds rate below inflation well after the economy had achieved sustainable growth
and financial markets had stabilized is questionable, and the expanded scope of monetary policy
involves large risks (see Chart 2). Financial markets have been stimulated, but the economy has been
largely unresponsive: nominal GDP has not accelerated, and economic growth has been sub-normal
(see Chart 3). Business investment has been disappointing despite the Fed's successful efforts to lower
the real costs of capital. Productivity gains have been weak and estimates of potential growth have been
reduced significantly. labor markets have clearly improved, but large pockets of under employment
persist.

Non-monetary factors including government tax and regulatory policies have hampered credit growth
and economic performance. In banking, the burdensome micro regulations imposed by Dodd-Frank and
the Fed's stress tests have deterred bank lending. The Fed's low rates and forward guidance aimed at
keeping bond yields low have dampened expectations. As a result, monetary policy channels have been
clogged so the high powered money created by the Fed's large scale asset purchases (LSAPs) remain as
excess reserves on big bank balance sheets and have not been put to work in the economy. In the
nonfinancial sector, the array of taxes and regulatory burdens and mandated expenses imposed by
Federal, state and local governments have led businesses to raise their hurdle rates for investment
projects. Many job-creating expansion plans have been scuttled.

The Fed takes far too much credit for the sustained economic expansion and labor market
improvement of recent years. In reality, without the sustained aggressive monetary ease, the economy

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would have continued to expand and jobs would have increased. History shows clearly that economic
performance has not been harmed when the Fed has normalized interest rates following a period of
monetary ease. Not surprisingly, the three Fed rate hikes since December 2015 have had no material
impact on economic performance.

The failure of nominal GDP to accelerate in response to the Fed's unprecedented monetary ease has
been the critical reason why wage increases have remained modest and inflation has remained below
the Fed's 2% target. The slow (and nonaccelerating) growth of aggregate product demand has
constrained business pricing power and at the same time has influenced wage setting behavior. In every
prior expansion in which the unemployment rate fell below standard estimates of its natural rate ("fullemployment"), wages accelerated briskly. During this expansion, the slower growth in aggregate
product demand has been a key constraining factor. Inflation additionally has been constrained by
lower prices of select goods and services stemming from technological innovations. Most notably, the
PCE deflator for durable goods has fallen persistently since the mid-1990s. These innovations have
increased consumer purchasing power and benefited the economy. It is ironic that the inability of
aggressive monetary ease to stimulate aggregate demand has allowed the Fed to be complacent about
normalizing policy without violating its dual mandate.

The Fed's historic tendency to fine-tune the economy and financial markets has been accentuated. The
Fed's LSAPs, reinvestment policy and hesitancy to normalize policy have been heavily influenced by
short-term fluctuations in the economy, global and domestic markets, the labor force participation rate
and wages. These are beyond the Fed's mandate and well beyond the scope of monetary policy.

Such

short-term focus historically has led to policy mistakes.

The Fed's balance sheet. As a result, the Fed maintains a balance sheet of $4.5 trillion, including $2.5
trillion of US Treasury securities of various maturities and $1.8 trillion of (MBS), primarily with long
maturities (see Chart 4). The Fed is now the largest holder of each (17% of outstanding publicly-held
Federal debt and 12% of MBS outstanding). Prior to the financial crisis, the Fed's balance sheet was
roughly $850 billion, comprised nearly entirely of short-term Treasury and other liquid securities.

The Fed finances these assets in large part by borrowing over $2 trillion in short-duration notes from the
banking system, and accounts for these liabilities as excess reserves on its balance sheet. An estimated

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25%-33% of excess reserves are held in US branches of foreign banks. In October 2008 the Fed adopted
a policy to pay interest on excess reserves (IOER) equal to the top band of the Fed funds target, with the
intention of providing a floor for propping up the effective Fed funds rate. With the Fed's June rate
increase, it now pays 1.25% on IOER.

The Fed's current balance sheet strategy is to gradually and passively unwind a fairly even portion of its
Treasury and MBS holdings with an aim of maintaining a large buffer of excess reserves. This implies a
shift from pre-financial crisis operating procedures. The Fed is very concerned about adverse
implications for financial markets and mortgage rates in particular and has built an argument that
maintaining a large amount of excess reserves going forward would be beneficial to financial markets
and the Fed's conduct of monetary policy.

But the Fed's holdings of MBS are inappropriate, directly involving monetary policy in credit
allocation, and should be totally unwound. The Fed's MBS holdings effectively favor mortgage credit
over other types of credit. While the initial MBS purchases during the height of the financial crisis had a
distinct purpose, continuing to hold MBS makes little sense. This expanded scope of monetary policy is

all the more irrational in slight of the healthy growth in housing and high home prices.

The Fed's intention to maintain a large buffer of excess reserves would require the Fed to continue to
pay IOER and manage the effective Fed funds rate through a "floor system". I prefer a strategy of
maintaining a smaller balance sheet that would involve less excess reserves in the banking system and
rely on the market-based "corridor system" that was used through most of the Fed's history. Doing so
would allow the Fed to lessen its exposure in the over-night reverse repo market. However, this
operational preference is of less importance than the higher priorities of fully winding down the Fed's
MBS holdings and reining in the scope of monetary policy.

Monetary influences on fiscal policy. The Fed's balance sheet, low policy rate, and forward guidance
aimed at keeping bond yields low temporarily reduce budget deficits and the government's debt service
costs. The Fed effectively is operating a massive positive carry strategy by borrowing short and lending
long. This will generate profits and reduce budget deficits as long as interest rates stay low. The Fed's
remittances to the US Treasury reached a peak of $117 billion in Fiscal Year 2015 and have receded as

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the Fed has hiked rates that has triggered an increase in IOER to banks. These large remittances to the
Treasury have materially reduced recent budget deficits.

While this may sound good superficially, it involves sizeable risks-to current and future taxpayers-and
entangles the Fed's monetary policy in the government's budget and fiscal policies in unhealthy ways. It
also compromises the Fed's independence, a concern that should be taken seriously.

Congress seems to perceive that the Fed's policies aimed at stimulating the economy and lowering
deficits and debt service costs are risk-free and permanent, when in fact they involve sizeable interest
rate exposure. The Fed's remittances will fall as it normalizes its policy rate. More importantly, in light
of the magnitude of Federal debt outstanding (currently $15 trillion and estimated by the Congressional
Budget Office to rise to $27 trillion in 2027), budget deficits and debt service costs are very sensitive to
interest rates. The CBO estimates that a 1 percentage point increase in interest rates from its baseline
assumptions over the 10-year projection period would add $1.6 trillion to the budget deficit.

Such interest rate risk must be taken seriously. The Fed's forecasts of higher policy rates, sustained
economic growth and a rise in inflation to 2% point toward higher bond yields, and prior experiences of
positive carry strategies often end badly. Witness the failures of many private financial companies, as
well as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which required government bailouts. The Fed's efforts to be more

transparent should include a clear assessment of the government's budgetary risks of its sustained
monetary ease.

The suppressed deficits and debt service costs have eased pressure on Congress to address the growing
budget imbalance. The Fed's profits remitted to the Treasury have also proved enticing to fiscal
policymakers and encouraged undesirable budget practices. In December 2015, Congress's enactment
of the FAST Act to provide financing for transportation infrastructure relied on budgetary "sleight of
hand" in which it redirected a small portion of the Fed's assets and some of its net profit into the
Highway Trust Fund. The Fed was compromised but did not protest the way this budgetary procedure
inappropriately used monetary policy for fiscal purposes. This episode sounds minor, but it illustrates
the potential vulnerabilities of the Fed's expanded scope.

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Fiscal policy influences on monetary policy. To date fiscal considerations have not influenced the Fed's

monetary policy deliberations. The debates about tax reform, the Fiscal Year 2018 government budget
and potential snags relating to the debt ceiling add uncertainties that the Fed must consider, but they
have been relatively low-level concerns. The projections of dramatically rising government debt, and
the lack of impetus of fiscal policymakers to address the issue, raise the prospects that the government's
finances may influence the Fed and impinge on monetary policy.

The bottom line is sound monetary policy ultimately relies on sound government finances. In the
extreme, unsustainably high government debt service burdens may dominate monetary policy and
require the Fed to accommodate fiscal policy by reducing the real value of the debt or in an extreme by
ensuring the government's solvency. Such a prospect of fiscal dominance of monetary policy seems
remote and far off. However, it may not be so distant, particularly if fiscal policymakers ignore the
longer-term budget debt realities. Moreover, nobody really knows when the level of debt becomes
"unsustainable" or when or how government finances may unhi.nge inflationary expectations.

In this context, the current fiscal debate about tax policy should be focusing on reforms that increase
productive capacity by reducing inefficiencies and distortions and improving the environment for
economic expansion, rather than temporary fiscal stimulus that involves more deficit spending. This is
particularly true with the economy entering its ninth consecutive year of expansion.

Congress faces several alternative fiscal policy paths. It may continue to avoid reforms of current
spending programs and the tax structure. Economic growth would remain slow, large pockets of
underperformance in labor markets and slow wage growth would persist, reliance on income support
would mount and government programs would become increasingly strained, and government debt
would continue to rise rapidly. Disappointing economic performance would be reinforced, and
downside risks would rise. Alternatively, Congress may develop and implement reforms of current
spending programs, particularly the entitlements, improving their structures while maintaining their
intent, and address the sources of the rising government debt, and reform and simplify the tax system,
particularly corporate taxes. These efforts would lift sustainable economic growth, improve the
productivity, wages and economic well-being of underperfonmers in labor markets, and ease burdens on
income support systems and improve government finances. Future concerns are quickly becoming
current realities. The time for policy action is now.

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Chart 1: Federal debt held by the public as a percentage of GOP

160
140

140

120

120

100

100

80

80

60

60

40

40

20

20
0

0

1900

1920

1940

1960

1980

2000

2040

2020

Source: Congressional Budget Office

Chart 2: Nominal and real federal funds target rate*
%

-Nominal fed funds
target rate

--Real fed funds target
rate

4

"''"""""""'"""'''""""c::::_-+ 0

0

-1

-1

-2

-2
1990

1994

1998

2002

2006

2010

2014

*Note: Reo/ federal funds target rate deflated by core PCE inflation. Source: Federal Reserve
Board and Bureau of Economic Analysis

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Chart 3: Nominal GOP growth
yoy,%

8

8

7

4

4
3

0 +mr---~-----r----~----~--­

------~----+ 0

-1

-1

-2

-2

-3

-3
-4

1994

1998

2002

2006

2010

2014

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis

Chart 4: Federal Reserve's assets and liabilities
$, trn
4.5

4.5
4.0
3.5
3.0
2.5
2.0

4.0

3.5
3.0
2.5
2.0
1.5

1.5
1.0
0.5
0.0

1.0

0.5
0.0

:~~

-1.5

!-----..

-2.0

CIAssets: Other

-2.5
-3.0
-3.5

Ill
MBS
II
Treasuries
Ell liabilities: Other

-4.0

1111

-0.5
-1.0

-1.5
-2.0
-2.5
-3.0
-3.5
-4.0

Deposits

-4.5

-4.5

Jan-06

Jan-08

Jan-10

Jan-12

Jan-14

Jan-16

Source: Federal Reserve Board

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Testimony
Before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services
Monetary Policy and Trade Subcommittee
Hearing on "Monetary Policy v. Fiscal Policy: Risks to Price Stability and the Economy"
George Selgin
Director, Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives, Cato Institute
July 20,

2017

I. Introduction

Chairman Barr, Ranking Member Moore, and distinguished members of the
Committee on Financial Services Monetary Policy and Trade Subcommittee, my name is
George Selgin, and I am the Director of the Cato Institute's Center for Monetary and
Financial Alternatives. I am also an adjunct professor of economics at George Mason
University, and Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Georgia. I am
grateful to all of you for having granted me this opportunity to testifY before you on the
subject of"Monetary Policy v. Fiscal Policy: Risks to Price Stability and the Economy."
Rather than attempt to address each of the many facets of this broad subject, I will
devote my remarks to one that seems to me especially important. I refer to the risks to
price stability, to the efficient employment of the public's scarce savings, and ultimately
to economic growth, posed by the Fed's decision, made during the 2008 financial crisis, to
switch from its traditional operating system to a radically new one, involving the payment
of interest on banks' excess reserves at above-market rates.
Although it has attracted less attention, and generated less controversy, than some
of the Fed's other crisis-related innovations, the Fed's decision to pay interest on excess
reserves (henceforth IOER, to use the Fed's own preferred acronym) has had more
profound and enduring consequences than those of most of its other crisis-inspired
undertakings. And despite Fed officials' intentions, those consequences have been almost
entirely harmful. While those officials claimed, and presumably believed, that IOER
would assist them in maintaining the flow of private credit in the face of extremely low
and falling interest rates, the new policy's actual effects have heen very much at odds with
those intentions.
Among other things, the Fed's resort to IOER, and its particular settings of the
IOER rate,

•

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intensified an already severe economic downturn by serving as the means by
which the Fed maintained an excessively tight monetary policy;
led to a sustained collapse in the interbank market for federal funds, thereby
destroying the Fed's traditional means of monetary control;

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•

•

dramatically reduced the effectiveness of open-market operations, so that even
massive Fed asset purchases might not supply the stimulus to investment and
spending that much smaller purchases would once have achieved; and
undermined productivity by substantially increasing the Fed's role in allocating
scarce credit.

Today, the Fed's practice of encouraging banks to hold excess reserves, besides
continuing to have many of the harmful consequences it has had in the past, also
threatens to prevent Fed officials from honoring their promise to shrink the Fed's balance
sheet and to otherwise "normalize" monetary policy.
The rest of my testimony will explain in detail how the Fed's IOER experimentwhich should henceforth be understood to mean, not just paying interest on excess
reserves, but doing so at above-market rates-came about, what its intended and actual
consequences have been, and why Congress should bring it to an end as rapidly as can be
done without causing further economic damage.
II. Origins ofiOER

Economists have long understood that, to the extent that they bear no interest,
bank reserves, including both banks' holdings of vault cash and their Federal Reserve
deposit balances, serve as a tax on bank deposits, and therefore on bank depositors.
Although the Fed earns interest on the assets backing such reserves, until October 2008 it
didn't share that interest with commercial banks. Instead, thanks to its monopoly
privileges and close relation to the government, it remitted all its interest earnings, net of
its operating expenses, to the U.S. Treasury.
Though it was only in the midst of the recent financial crisis that the Fed first
began paying interest on bank reserves, the possibility of its doing so has long been a
subject of discussion and debate. Indeed, the idea was initially broached during the
discussions that led to the passage of the original Federal Reserve Act in 1913. That
original suggestion was ultimately rejected, in large part because of opposition from Wall
Street banks, which saw it as a threat to their lucrative correspondent business.'
So matters stood for more than half a century, thanks to the generally low inflation
and interest-rate environment that prevailed during most of that time, and, after 1933, to
the fact that Regulation Q and other provisions of the 1933 Banking Act relieved
commercial banks themselves of pressure to pay competitive rates of interest on their
own deposit balances.
Starting in the mid 196os, however, a combination of rising inflation rates,
declining Fed membership, the rise of Money Market Mutual Funds, and increasingly
intense global banking competition, revived Fed officials' desire to be able to pay interest
'On Wall Street banks' role in the drafting of the Federal Reserve Act, see Selgin (2016).

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on bank reserves, as an alternative to dispensing with mandatory reserve requirements,
which they regarded as an aid to monetary control (see Weiner 1985; Higgins 1977; and
Eubanks 2002). Over the course of the next several decades Fed officials tried several
times to gain Congress's permission to pay interest on reserves.' Until2oo6 these
attempts were successfully opposed by the U.S. Treasury, which feared having its
seigniorage earnings substantially reduced. But in that year the Fed finally managed to
have the authority it had long sought included among the provisions of the Financial
Services Regulatory Relief Act.
The Fed's ultimate success was made possible in large part by reduced Treasury
opposition, itself due to a considerable decline, during the 1990s, in the burden posed by
mandatory reserve requirements, and the corresponding decline in the Treasury's
seigniorage revenues. Although actual requirements were reduced somewhat, their
reduced burden was mainly due to banks' successful employment of"sweep accounts" to
avoid them. By substantially reducing the effective reserve tax base, these developments
also reduced the cost to the Treasury of allowing the Fed to pay interest on reserves.
By the same token, however, the reduced burden of reserve requirements also
limited the "regulatory relief" banks would gain from interest payments on reserves.
Perhaps in recognition of this, Fed officials, in making their successful bid for the right to
pay interest on bank reserves, offered new grounds for doing so that had nothing to do
with reducing the reserve tax. In particular, then Fed Governor Donald Kahn (2005)
argued that, besides making it unnecessary for banks to resort to sweep accounts and
other "reserve avoidance measures," interest on reserves, and on excess reserves
especially, would assist the Fed in conducting monetary policy "by establishing a
sufficient and predictable demand for balances at the Reserve Banks so that the System
knows the volume of reserves to supply (or remove) through open market operations to
achieve the FOMC's target federal funds rate."
Importantly, in view of later developments, Kahn's statement implied that IOER
was meant to support, rather than supplant, the Fed's traditional methods of monetary
control, including its reliance upon open-market operations as its chief tool for reaching
its monetary targets.
Finally, Kahn said that the IOER rate
would act as a minimum for overnight interest rates, because banks would not
generally lend to other banks at a lower rate than they could earn by keeping their

'As Goodfriend and Hargraves (1983, pp. 16-17) report, in 1978, the Fed went so far as to declare that,
because statute law didn't expressly prohibit it from doing so, it planned to start paying interest on reserves
without Congress's permission. That gambit quickly came to grief when Representative Henry Reuss and
Senator William Proxmire, the chairmen of the House and Senate Banking Committees, respectively, called
it "a blatant usurpation of Congressional powers [that] would raise profound questions about the continued
independence of the Fed."

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excess funds at a Reserve Bank. Although the Board sees no need to pay interest on
excess reserves in the near future, and any movement in this direction would need
further study, the ability to do so would be a potentially useful addition to the
monetary toolkit of the Federal Reserve (ibid.; emphasis added).
These remarks suggest that the Fed was contemplating a "corridor system" of the
sort that many central banks were then employing. In such a system, the IOER rate serves
as a lower bound for the central bank's policy rate, while the central bank's emergency
lending rate serves as an upper bound. Although the policy rate can vary within these
limits, it generally stays close to a target set, in most instances, half-way between them.
Most importantly, it is kept there by means of the central bank's additions to or
subtractions from the quantity of bank reserves. Except on those infrequent occasions
when one of the limits becomes binding, changes to the supply of reserves continue to be
the chief means by which the central bank conducts monetary policy (Kahn 2010, pp. I3I5).
Had the Fed actually employed IOER to establish a corridor system, its doing so
wouldn't have constituted a radical change. But as we shall see, when the Fed actually put
its new tool to work, a corridor system was no longer what it had in mind.

III. IOER and the 2oo8 Emergency Economic Stabilization Act
III. a. Fear of Falling
The 2006 Act would have allowed the Fed to begin paying interest on depository
institutions' reserve balances commencing October I, 20u. However, the worsening
financial crisis of 2008 led to the passage of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act,
which advanced the effective date of the 2006 measure to October I, 2008.
Fed officials sought and received Congress's authorization to begin paying interest
on reserves three years ahead of the originally planned date for a reason completely
unrelated to those that Kohn and others had offered in defense of the original measure.
As Ben Bernanke explains in his memoir,
We had initially asked to pay interest on reserves for technical reasons. But in
2008, we needed the authority to solve an increasingly serious problem: the risk
that our emergency lending, which had the side effect of increasing bank reserves,
would lead short-term interest rates to fall below our federal funds target and
thereby cause us to lose control of monetary policy. When banks have lots of
reserves, they have less need to borrow from each other, which pushes down the
interest rate on that borrowing-the federal funds rate.
Until this point we had been selling Treasury securities we owned to offset the
effect of our [emergency]lending on reserves (the process called sterilization). But
as our lending increased, that stopgap response would at some point no longer be

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possible because we would run out of Treasuries to sell. At that point, without
legislative action, we would be forced to either limit the size of our
interventions ... or lose the ability to control the federal funds rate, the main
instrument of monetary policy. [By J setting the interest rate we paid on reserves
high enough, we could prevent the federal funds rate from falling too low, no
matter how much [emergency] lending we did (Bernanke 2015, pp. 325-6; emphasis
added).
The same understanding of the Fed's intention in implementing IOER three years
ahead of the original, 2006 schedule was conveyed in the Board of Governors' October 6,
2008 press release announcing the Fed's new tool:
The payment of interest on excess reserves will permit the Federal Reserve to
expand its balance sheet as necessary to provide the liquidity necessary to support
financial stability while implementing the monetary policy that is appropriate in
light of the System's macroeconomic objectives of maximum employment and
price stability. 3
The chart below may further clarify the Fed's reasoning. The solid line in it shows
the Fed's total assets, while the dashed line shows its Treasury holdings, before and since
Lehman's failure. That failure was followed by a dramatic increase in the Fed's emergency
lending. But because the Fed's Treasury holdings had already fallen by then to what Fed
officials considered a minimal level, they had to find other ways to prevent growth in its
balance sheet from undermining its ability to keep new reserves from flooding into the
fed funds market. While the Treasury, at the Fed's behest, did its part by diverting funds
to a "Supplementary Finance Account" created for the purpose of reducing banks' share of
total Fed balances (dotted line), for the most part the Fed was counting on IOER to
encourage banks to accumulate excess reserves instead of lending them.

3 Numerous other Fed sources, including the Federal Reserve Board's October 6,
announcing its implementation of!OER, affirm Bernanke's understanding.

2008

press release

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Ill. b. From Corridor to Floor

Whether Fed officials realized it at the time or not, their new IOER plan was
fundamentally at odds with having the IOER rate serve as the lower-bound of a "corridor"
system. In a genuine corridor system, as we've seen, the IOER rate is supposed to be set
below the monetary authority's intended policy rate target, and changes in the stock of
bank reserves are supposed to keep the rate near that target. In contrast, if!OER is to
have the effect of preventing additions to the supply of reserves from influencing the fed
funds rate, the IOER rate must be set at, if not above, the prevailing fed funds rate.
The Fed's strategy called, in other words, not for a "corridor" system, but for what
Marvin Goodfriend (2002) and others have termed a "floor" system. In a floor system the
IOER rate itself becomes the central bank's policy rate, and hence its chief instrument of
monetary control, replacing management of the stock of bank reserves in that role. The
difference between the two arrangements is illustrated in the figure below. In a corridor
system, as we've seen, the target fed funds rate is set between, and typically half-way
between, the IOER rate and the discount (or primary credit) rate, and open-market
operations are employed to keep the effective funds rate close to its target value. In a
floor system, in contrast, the Fed sets an above-market IOER rate equal to its desired fed
funds rate target, thereby allowing the IOER rate to serve, in Goodfriend's words, as both
a "floor under which banks would not lend reserves to each other" and "a ceiling above
which banks would not lend to each other." The Fed is therefore able to maintain a
desired fed funds rate despite flooding the market with bank reserves.

(Reproduced from Keister

2012)

III. c. A Dubious Advantage

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Would a floor system save the day by allowing a rapidly-expanding Fed to
maintain an above-zero fed funds rate? As I've observed elsewhere, 4 the logic
underpinning the Fed's plan was more than a little tortured. If there is reason to fear the
zero lower bound, it's because, once the fed funds rate reaches zero banks, instead of
seeking to exchange excess reserves for other assets, will become indifferent between
those alternatives. As Marvin Goodfriend (2002) explains,
banks will never lend reserves to each other at negative (nominal) interest if
reserve deposits are costless to store (carry) at the central bank. The zero bound
on the nominal interbank rate is a consequence of the fact that a central bank
stores bank reserves for free (p. 2).
At the zero lower bound, ordinary Fed rate cuts are no longer possible. Those
inclined to identifY monetary easing with rate cuts see this as "the" problem. But that's
taking a superficial view of matters. The real problem is that, at the zero lower bound, the
(zero) yield on bank reserves ceases to be lower than the yield on other short-term assets.
Consequently, further additions to the total reserve supply-the Fed's ordinary means of
stimulating the economy-no longer inspire further bank lending and deposit creation.
Instead, the economy becomes mired in a "liquidity trap," with banks sitting on any fresh
reserves that come their way. As Congressman Alan Goldsborough famously put it in
1935, in attempting to induce more lending the Fed would find itself"pushing on a
string."
How, in that case, could a positive IOER rate help? To be sure, it can solve the
"zero lower bound problem" superficially, by establishing a positive fed funds rate floor.
But to what end? IOER would then render additions to the stock of bank reserves
ineffective as a source of stimulus before the fed funds rate reached zero rather than once
it did so. Yes, with the help of (positive) JOER, the Fed might set and achieve whatever
positive rate target it liked; and it might do so regardless of how many reserves it created.
But this "decoupling"5 of interest rates changes from changes in the scarcity of bank
reserves, applauded by Goodfriend (ibid.), Keister (2012), and Keister, Martin, and
McAndrews (2oo8) as a feature of a floor system, is really a bug: the extra freedom it
entails comes at a very great price, to wit: the Fed's inability to use its reserve-creating
powers to promote additional bank lending and spending. 6

4

Selgin (2017a)
expression comes from Claudio Borio and Piti Disyatat (2009). Keister, Martin, and McAndrews
(2oo8) instead refer, approvingly, to a floor system as a device for "Divorcing Money from Monetary Policy."
6
These remarks, once again, refer only to the use of a positive IOER rate to maintain an above-zero interest
rate floor. A negative IOER rate can, in contrast, serve in principle to get around the zero lower bound
problem by allowing a central bank to maintain a positive opportunity cost of reserve holding even when
short-term market rates fall to zero. It is, to say the least, hardly possible that either negative or positive
(but not zero!) lOER can serve equally well to get around tbe zero lower bound problem: if one theory of
how IOER does this is correct, the other is, presumably, mistaken.
5 The

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When driving an automobile, one can get away with only so many combinations of
steering-wheel movements on the one hand and the gas pedal pressure on the other.
Wouldn't it be nice to be able to have complete freedom to step on the gas, and yet steer
whichever way we like? Well, there's a solution: put the transmission in neutral! The
hitch of course is that, while one can now steer any way one likes, and stomp on the gas
all one likes, one cannot get very far doing either.
An above-market IOER rate can likewise allow the Fed to steer the fed funds rate
any way it likes, while stepping on the reserve-creation peddle as hard as it likes, only by
putting the usual monetary transmission mechanism in neutral. For the usual zero-lowerbound liquidity trap, it substitutes an above-zero liquidity trap in which monetary policy
remains, despite appearances to the contrary, more-or-less equally impotent. The zero
lower bound problem is thus avoided, but in a way that may still leave the economy in a
depressed state, with little scope for monetary policy stimulus of the old-fashioned sort. It
is as if (to offer one last simile), out of concern for would-be jumpers, the designers of a
skyscraper decided to construct a broad concrete veranda around their building's second
floor, to prevent them from ever hitting the ground!
Just how the Fed proposed to stimulate the economy with its ordinary monetary
policy transmission mechanism stuck in neutral, as it were, was a challenging question
Fed authorities would eventually have to answer. For the time being, however,
stimulating the economy wasn't their concern. Instead, their concern was to avoid
stimulating the economy unintentionally. For that purpose, IOER, administered
according to the requirements of a floor system, would serve the Fed's needs well. Indeed,
in retrospect, it was to serve them all too well.

III. d. From Floor to Ceiling
Although the Fed's plans called for a floor rather than a corridor operating system,
with the IOER rate set high enough to encourage banks to accumulate excess reserves,
the Board of Governors appears to have failed at first to grasp this necessity. Instead, in
the same press release announcing its desire to employ IOER to bolster the fed funds rate,
it declared its intention to set the IOER rate at a level equal to "the lowest targeted federal
funds rate for each reserve maintenance period less 75 basis points."
Just how an IOER rate set 75 basis points below "the lowest targeted federal funds
rate" could possibly assist the Fed in achieving its immediate monetary policy goal, and
specifically how it could keep the effective fed funds rate from eventually slipping as
much as 75 basis points below the Fed's target, the press release didn't explain. Nor could
it have, since IOER could only keep the fed funds rate from falling below the Fed's target
if the IOER rate was set equal to, or rather (for reasons we'll come to) above, that target.
Partly for this very reason, the effective fed funds rate continued to decline, as can be
seen in the next chart.

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The Fed's announcement provided, however, that "the formula for the interest rate
on excess balances may be adjusted subsequently in light of experience and evolving
market conditions." The Fed was, unsurprisingly, quick to take advantage of this clause,
which it did by reducing the gap between the IOER rate and its fed funds target, first to 35
basis points, and finally, on November 6, 2008, to zero. However, the gap between the
Fed's rate target and the effective fed funds rate had itself continued to grow in the
meantime. The end result of the Fed's maneuvers, therefore, was an IOER rate well above
what banks might actually gain by lending federal funds.
That IOER failed to keep the fed funds rate on target even once the IOER rate was
set equal to that target was both inconsistent with the way a floor system was supposed to
operate, and a source of considerable disappointment to Fed officials and economists.
Blame for it has been placed on the fact that, in addition to banks, various GSEs,
including Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, and the Federal Home Loan Banks, keep deposit
balances at the Fed, but aren't eligible for interest on those balances? The GSEs access to
the fed funds market therefore creates an arbitrage opportunity Fed officials didn't
anticipate, with GSEs lending fed funds overnight to banks in exchange for a share of the
latter's IOER earnings. When the IOER rate was set at 25 basis points, for example, one of
the Federal Home Loan Banks might lend funds overnight to a commercial bank for less
than 25 basis points, allowing the commercial bank to profit from the spread, while
securing for itself a return greater than the zero rate it would earn if it just held on to its
Fed balance.
Consequently, instead of getting the solid floor system it wanted, the Fed had to
settle instead for a "leaky" system. Indeed, because the effective fed funds rate tended to
fall below the IOER rate, the latter ended up looking less like a floor than like a ceilingjust the opposite of corridor arrangement. When, in mid-December 2015, the Fed began
7 See Kahn (2010).

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making use of a new overnight reverse repurchase agreement (ON-RRP) facility to
establish what Stephen Williamson (zm6) has called a "floor-with-sub-floor" system, with
the effective fed funds rate trading within a target "range" defined by the IOER rate
(floor), and the ON-RRP (subfloor), the resemblance of the Fed's new system to a corridor
system gone topsy-turvy became all the more complete.

IV. Setting the IOER Rate
FV. a. Original Intent: A Below-Market IOER Rate

Having shifted, between 2006 and 2008, from an IOER scheme aimed at ending
the implicit taxation of bank reserves and perhaps at establishing a corridor system of
monetary control, to one aimed at establishing a floor system, however leaky, the Fed was
bending the law. For the new policy marked a radical change, not just from what the
authors of the 2006 legislation had envisioned, but from what that legislation provided
for in fact.
The pre-crisis opinion had been that IOER should be used cautiously, with the
IOER rate set low enough to avoid making reserves seem "more attractive relative to
alternatve short-term assets." Otherwise, that opinion held, IOER, instead of simplifying
8
monetary policy, would further complicate it (Weiner 1985, p. 30).
Such was clearly Federal Reserve Governor Laurence H. Meyer's understanding
when, in arguing the case for allowing the Fed pay interest on reserves before the House
Banking Committee in 2000, he explained that
If the bill becomes law, the Federal Reserve would likely pay an interest rate on
required reserve balances close to the rate on other risk-free money market
instruments, such as repurchase agreements. This rate is usually a little less than
the interest rate on federal funds transactions, which are uncollateralized
overnight loans of reserves in the interbank market (Meyer 2000, p. w).
What Governor Meyer considered an appropriate proxy for "the general level of
short-term interest rates" in 2000 was presumably still appropriate in 2006. Since
unsecured overnight rates, such as the federal funds rate and the London Interbank
Overnight Rate (LIBOR), entail greater risk than overnight repos, to abide by the intent of
the 2006 and 2008 laws, the Fed would have to keep the interest rates paid on reserve
balances somewhat below these somewhat more risky overnight interbank lending rates.
In this way, as one Fed official explained when the 2006 legislation was being considered,
banks would have no reason "to significantly shift their financial resources to take
advantage of this [the IOER] rate" (Eubanks 2002, p. n). In particular, banks would
continue to keep only such reserve balances as they needed to meet their legal and

8

See also Laurent and Mote (N.d.).

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clearing-balance requirements. The main difference reformers anticipated was that they
would no longer bother using sweep accounts to avoid an implicit reserve tax.
The provisions of the 2006 legislation reflected these same considerations.
According to Title !I of that measure, the Fed might pay interest on depository
institutions' reserve balances "at a rate or rates not to exceed the general level of shortterm interest rates." The 2008 Financial Services Regulatory Relief Act left: this language
unaltered.
JV.b. Above the Law?

Fed officials therefore found themselves in a quandary. As we've seen, they wanted
to be able to resort to !OER three years ahead of schedule precisely for the purpose of
making excess reserves "attractive relative to alternative short-term assets." That meant
setting the !OER rate above the going, but still positive, equilibrium fed funds rate.
Indeed, given the "leakiness" of the Fed's floor system, the IOER rate would have to be set
considerably above the Fed's target rate. ln practice that also meant keeping the IOER
rate above other, comparable market-based short-term interest rates. According to the
law, on the other hand, the Fed was only supposed to pay interest on bank reserve
balances at a rate "not to exceed the general level of short-term interest rates."
That the Fed did in fact settle on an IOER rate above comparable market rates can
be seen in the next sequence of charts, the first of which compares its IOER rate to both
the effective federal funds and the LIBOR rate:

Because the fed funds and LIBOR rates are rates for unsecured overnight loans,
they include a small risk component, while the IOER rate is equivalent to a risk-free
overnight rate. For that reason, and as Governor Meyers suggested in his previouslymentioned testimony, the rate implicit in overnight, Treasury-secured repurchase

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85
agreements might be a more appropriate market-rate benchmark. That rate has also
tended to fall below the IOER rate.

Finally, it's instructive to compare the IOER rate to rates on Treasury bills of
various maturities. The latter rates should, for obvious reasons, generally be above
equivalent, risk-free overnight rates, according to the securities' term to maturity. Yet, as
the next chart shows, rates on both 4-week and 3 month T-bills have also been
persistently, and often substantially, below the IOER rate. Indeed, from the spring of 20n
through mid-summer of 2015, even rates on 1-year Treasury bills remained below, and
generally well below, the !OER rate:

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In short, it's impossible to reconcile the Federal Reserve's setting of its IOER rate
with any reasonable understanding of the law's stipulation that it is "not to exceed the
general level of short-term interest rates."
IV. c. "One of these rates is not like the others ... "

In an apparent attempt to legalize the Fed's IOER rate settings after the fact, Fed
officials, in drafting the final rules implementing the 2008 statute, as published in the
Federal Register on June 22, 2015, determined that for that purpose
"short-term interest rates" are rates on obligations with maturities of no more than
one year, such as the primary credit rate and rates on term federal funds, term
repurchase agreements, commercial paper, term Eurodollar deposits, and other
similar instruments (Regulation D: Reserve Requirements for Depository
Institutions 2015, p. 35567).
While most of the listed rates are unobjectionable, even if they fail to include
overnight obligations (which are, after all, closer equivalents to reserve balances than
term obligations are), the presence of the primary credit rate is a glaring anomaly, for
that's the discount rate that the Fed charges sound banks for short term emergency loans.
As such it isn't a market rate at all but one set administratively by the Fed's Board of
Governors. Moreover, since 2003 the Fed has always set its primary credit rate "above the
usual level of short-term market interest rates" (Board of Governors 2017b ). Since the Fed
began paying interest on reserves it has also deliberately set its primary credit rate above
the IOER rate. 9 The Fed has thus found a way by which to claim, with an implicit appeal
to Chevron deference, that its IOER rate settings have after all been consistent with the
requirements of the 2006 law! 00
That the Fed should thumb its nose thus at the statute granting it the authority to
pay interest on reserves would be regrettable enough if its doing so had only benign
consequences. Yet that is far from being the case. On the contrary: by bending the law to
conform to its plan to make the accumulation of reserve balances more attractive to
banks than other forms of investment, the Fed fundamentally altered the workings of the
U.S. monetary system, with grave consequences for the U.S. economy.
V. IOER and Reserve Hoarding

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9 Since the beginning of2o10 the Fed has maintained a fixed spread of so basis points between the lOER
rate and the primary credit rate by adjusting both rates together.
'""Chevron deference" is the controversial principle, put into effect by the Supreme Court's 1984 decision in
Chevron USA v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., that courts should defer to government agencies'
own interpretations of statutes establishing new agency obligations and powers. In City ofArlington v. FCC
(2013) the Court held, furthermore, that government agencies deserve deference even when it comes to
interpreting statutes establishing the scope of their own authority!

87
Many observers have assumed that the seemingly modest rate the Fed has paid on
banks' excess reserve balances, which has so far never exceeded 125 basis points, and
which was a mere 25 basis points from December 2008 until December 2015, has never
been high enough to have had any substantial bearing on banks' decision making, and
particularly on either the total supply or the allocation of credit.
But as we've seen, these seemingly low IOER rates have not been low relative to
comparable market rates. For that reason, their influence on banks' behavior has been
anything but modest. As Simon Potter (2015), a Federal Reserve Bank of New York Vice
President, and head of its Market Group, explains,
The IOER rate is essentially the rate of return earned by a bank on a riskless
overnight deposit held at the Fed, thus representing the opportunity cost to a bank
of using its funds in an alternative manner, such as making a loan or purchasing a
security. In principle, no bank would want to deploy its funds in a way that earned
less than what can be earned from its balances maintained at the Fed.
Thanks to IOER, banks have refrained from acquiring assets bearing a net return
below what they might earn simply by retaining Fed reserve balances. Some, indeed, have
found it worthwhile to actively acquire Fed balances for the sake of arbitraging the spread
between the return on such balances and private-market borrowing costs. Because IOER
was implemented for the express purpose of getting banks to accumulate excess reserves,
these outcomes should not surprise anyone.
V. a. The Accumulation and Distribution of Excess Reserves

The most obvious consequence of IOER has been unprecedented growth in banks'
excess reserves balances, meaning the Fed balances they hold beyond those serving,
together with banks' holdings of vault cash, to meet their minimum legal reserve
requirements.
In the two decades prior to October 2008, banks generally held between $1 and $2
billion in excess reserves, in part for the sake of avoiding shortfalls from their required
reserves, but mainly to avoid relatively costly clearing overdrafts. (The few exceptions
consisted of short-lived spikes in excess reserves following crises, like that of September
u, 2001, when banks briefly held over $19 trillion in excess reserves.) Banks' minimum
reserve requirements were, in contrast, largely met by their holdings of vault cash.
Between them, minimum reserve requirements and banks' demand for excess reserves for
settlement purposes determined banks' overall need for reserve balances, together with
their desired ratio of such balances to their demand deposits. As the chart below shows,
reserve balances normally amounted to between one-fifth and two-fifths of one percent of
demand deposits only.

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As the next chart shows, after Lehman Brothers' failure, banks' excess reserve
holdings began growing in lock-step with growth in the Fed's balance sheet, starting with
growth fueled by the Fed's post-Lehman emergency lending, and continuing, after
December 2008, with its several rounds oflarge-scale asset purchases (LSAPs). By August
2014 excess reserves, which had rarely surpassed $2 billion before the crisis, had risen to
almost $2.7 trillion.

89
That banks held on to reserves that came their way was a predictable consequence
of the Fed's above-market IOER rate." Still, banks didn't all take part equally in the vast
reserve buildup. Instead, as the next set of charts shows, a very large share of it went to
the very largest U.S. banks or to U.S. branches of foreign banks. As of early 2015, the top
25 U.S. banks, by asset size, held more than half of all outstanding bank reserves, with the
top three alone holding 21 percent of the total. Foreign bank branches accounted for
most of the rest. The cash assets of small U.S. banks, in contrast, rose only modestly.

Excess Reserves by Asset Size
Trillions of dollars
1!111 Large banks
IIIII Mid-sized banks
III!IISmall banks

3.0
2.5
2.0
1.5
1.0
0.5
0
2000

2007

2008

2009

2011

2010

2012

2013

2014

2015

Note; Shaded bar indicates a recession.
Source: Quarterly call report data.

"For theories, see Dutkowsky and VanHoose (2017) and Ireland (2012). According to the latter's DSGE
model, in the absence of positive costs of managing large excess reserve holdings banks receiving interest
on reserves at an above-market rate will wish to hold "an unboundedly large stock of reserves." To avoid
that outcome the lOER rate must be set slightly below the market rate (ibid., pp. 28-9). Bewley (1980) and
Sargent and Wallace (1985) were among the first authors to draw attention to the problem of reserve
demand indeterminacy in an IOER regime with a return on bank reserves equal to that on non-reserve
assets.

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90

Excess Reserves of Foreign and Domestic
Banks
Trillions of dollars
3,0

F,ore<gn banks
llllli Domestic banks

2.5
2.0
1.5
1.0
0.5
0
2006

2007

2008

2009

Note: St'taded bar 'indh::ate.s a

2011

2010

2012

2013

2014

2015

recession~

Sourc::s: Ouartefiy call report data.

That the very largest banks secured such a large share of the total accumulation of
excess reserves is partly explained by the fact that those banks include some of the
primary dealers that served as the Fed's immediate counterparties in its asset purchases
(Craig, Millington, and Zito 2014). Having thus had "first dibs" on new reserves the Fed
created, primary dealer banks simply refrained from letting go of reserves they acquired.
That practice was, of course, quite contrary to what primary dealers were normally
expected to do, and to what they generally did do before the crisis, when the Fed was still
relying on its traditional means of monetary controL Indeed, in the early stages of the
subprime crisis, Fed officials worried that the collapse of ailing primary dealers would
prevent them from serving as reliable conduits through which fresh reserves would make
their way from the Fed to the rest of the banking system (e.g., Kohn 2009). Now,
paradoxically, IOER was itself serving to close the same conduits, along with much of the
rest of the interbank market, but was doing so deliberately as part of the Fed's new
monetary control strategy.
As for U.S. branches offoreign-owned banks, because many aren't eligible for
deposit insurance, they also aren't subject to FDIC premium assessments based on their
total assets, including the reserve balances they hold. For that reason, and also because
many of their parent companies enjoy much lower net interest margins than U.S. banks,
they've found it especially profitable to acquire fed funds for the sake of arbitraging the
difference between the Fed's IOER rate and lower private-market arbitrage rates. In
consequence these banks ended up playing a particularly important part in keeping

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growth in the total quantity of reserve balances from contributing to corresponding
growth in overall bank lending.

V. b. Excess Reserves and the Fed's Balance Sheet
Some insist that, instead of stemming from the Fed's decision to pay interest on
excess reserves, the post-Lehman accumulation of excess bank reserves was an inevitable
consequences of the Fed's asset purchases. In an influential Liberty Street post, for
example, Todd Keister and Gaetona Antinolfi (2012) criticized Alan Blinder (2012) and
others for claiming that lowering the IOER rate would encourage banks to lend more and
thereby reduce their excess reserve balances:
Because lowering the interest rate paid on reserves wouldn't change the quantity
of assets held by the Fed, it must not change the total size of the monetary base
either. Moreover, lowering this interest rate to zero (or even slightly below zero) is
unlikely to induce banks, firms, or households to start holding large quantities of
currency. It follows, therefore, that lowering the interest rate paid on excess
reserves will not have any meaningful effect on the quantity of balances banks hold
on deposit at the Fed .... In fact, the total quantity of reserve balances held by
banks conveys no information about their lending activities-it simply reflects the
Federal Reserve's decisions on how many assets to acquire (Keister and Antinolfi
2012).
It's of course true, as any money and banking textbook will affirm, that banks
cannot alter the total quantity of reserve balances simply by trading them for other assets,
as doing so only transfer the balances to other banks. But the question isn't whether a
lower IOER rate would reduce total reserves. It's whether a lowered rate can result in a
lower quantity of excess reserves. The answer to that question is "yes," because, as the
same textbooks also explain, as banks trade unwanted reserves for other assets, they also
contribute to the growth of total banking system deposits; the fact that unwanted
reserves get passed on like so many hot potatoes only makes deposits grow that much
more rapidly. The growth of total deposits serves in turn to convert former excess
reserves into required reserves, where "required" means required either to meet minimum
legal requirements or for banks' clearing needs.

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That, at least, is what always happened before the Fed began encouraging banks to
cling to excess reserves. For example, as the chart below shows, prior to October 2008,
banks routinely disposed of unwanted excess reserves in the manner just described,
thereby keeping system excess reserves at trivial levels, and doing so despite additions to
the total supply of bank reserves that were, by pre-2oo8 standards at least, far from trivial.

92

It follows that, when banks hold a large quantity of excess reserves, that fact actually
conveys very significant "information about their lending activities." Specifically, it tells us
that they have refrained from engaging in such activities to some considerable extent.
In reply to these criticisms, Mr. Keister has suggested (in personal
correspondence) that, IOER or no !OER, the unprecedented scale of the Fed's postLehman balance sheet growth would have rendered the traditional means by which banks
disposed of unwanted excess reserves inoperable, because banks couldn't possibly achieve
the expansion in their total assets and deposit liabilities required to convert so vast an
increase in total reserves into an equally vast increase in required reserves. But this
counter-argument is also contradicted by relevant historical evidence, consisting of
instances of hyperinflation in which central banks expanded their balance sheets on a
scale much larger still than that seen in the U.S. since 2008. During the notorious Weimar
hyperinflation, for example, the (proportional) growth in German bank reserves far
exceeded that witnessed in the U.S. since Lehman's bankruptcy. Yet, according to Frank
D. Graham (1930, p. 68), Germany's banks, far from accumulating excess reserves,
increased their lending more than proportionately. "It would appear," Graham writes,
"that the commercial banks extended loans throughout the period of post-war inflation
considerably in excess of a proportionate relationship with the increase in the monetary
base .... The increase in deposits issuing from loans was especially marked in 1922 and till
stabilization in 1923."

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It doesn't follow, of course, that, had it not been for interest on excess reserves, the
Fed's post-Lehman asset purchases would have led to hyperinflation. Instead, Fed officials
would have not have felt compelled to purchase as many assets as they did; in any event,
they would have stopped purchasing assets once confronted with evidence that the
inflation rate was in danger of exceeding its target. As it was, by relying on !OER to
discourage banks from dispensing with excess reserves, the Fed ended up falling short of,
instead of surpassing, its inflation target. That outcome came as a surprise to those
accustomed to the workings of the Fed's traditional monetary control framework. But in

93
the context of its new IOER framework, any tendency for the Fed's asset purchases to
raise prices would itself have been surprising.
V. c. Reserve Demand and Opportunity Cost

Final proof, should it be needed, of the bearing of IOER on banks' willingness to
accumulate excess reserves comes from consideration of how that willingness varied with
changes in the relationship between the IOER rate and corresponding market rates. If
banks' demand for excess reserves is driven by the yield on such reserves compared to
that on other assets, then the banking system excess reserve ratio-the ratio of total
excess reserves to total bank deposits-should vary with the difference between the IOER
rate and comparable short term market rates, such as the overnight LIBOR rate. As the
next chart shows, this has indeed clearly been the case.

VI. IOER and Interbank Lending
As we've seen, when the Fed began paying interest on bank reserves, its immediate
concern was to keep its emergency lending from causing the fed funds rate to drop below
1.5 percent-the target it set when it announced its IOER plan. To repeat Ben Bernanke's
words once again, "by setting the interest rate we paid on reserves high enough, we could
prevent the federal funds rate from falling too low, no matter how much (emergency]
lending we did (Bernanke, 2015)." 12
But interest on reserves could not discourage banks from placing newly-created
reserves into the fed funds market without discouraging them from supplying any funds
to that market: if a dollar of reserves that landed in a bank's Fed account as a result of the
Fed's post-Lehman emergency lending earned more sitting in that account than it could
n "Interbank activity need not suffer regardless of the size of reserves, as long as the central bank makes sure that there
is an opportunity cost to holding reserves, by remunerating them at a rate below the market rate" {Borio and Disyatat
2009, p. J8fi29)-

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94
earn if lent to another bank overnight, the same was true of a dollar of reserves held
beforehand. Consequently, as the next chart shows, IOER served, not only to keep fresh
reserves from lowering the fed funds rate, but to dramatically reduce the total volume of
lending on the fed funds market: whereas financial institutions lent over $2oo billion on
the fed funds market during the last quarter of 2007, by the end of 2012 that figure has
fallen to just $6o billion (Afonso, Entz, and LeSueur 2013).
As was to be expected, banks and bank holding companies (BJ--!Cs) that were
eligible for IOER almost completely stopped lending overnight funds. Only the Federal
Home Loan banks and other GSEs continued to lend as much as ever, for the sake of
securing a share of banks' IOER earnings. The fed funds market thus ceased to function,
as it had for decades, as banks' preferred and most reliable source oflast-minute liquidity,
having instead been transformed into a mere vehicle for bank-to-GSE interest-rate
arbitrage.
Fed Funds Lending {2006·2012)

VI. b. IOER vs. Perceived Counterparty Risk

Although some have attributed the decline in fed funds lending to a post-Lehman
increase in perceived counterparty risk, that increase is no more capable of explaining the
persistent decline in interbank lending than it is capable of explaining banks' persistent
accumulation of excess reserves. While the TED spread-a popular measure of the
perceived counterparty risk, equal to the difference between the interest rate on shortterm interbank lending and the interest rate on Treasury securities-spiked at the time of
Lehman's failure, it began to decline soon afterwards when the Fed decided to come to
AIG's rescue, eventually falling to levels even lower than those that that prevailed before
the crisis. Interbank lending, on the other hand, never recovered. The Fed's decision to
pay interest on excess reserves therefore appears to have been the fundamental cause of
the enduring post-Lehman decline in such lending.

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The timing of the substantial rise in banks' excess reserves reinforces the last
conclusion. Although banks accumulated excess reserves immediately following
Lehman's failure, most of the increase occurred after the Fed began paying interest on
reserves. Overall, the evidence suggests that, while an increased fear of counterparty risk
accounted for banks' increased excess reserve holdings immediately following Lehman's
failure, IOER was responsible for the subsequent more substantial and lasting increase in
those holdings.' 3
Finally, the close relationship between the total volume of interbank lending and
the opportunity cost of reserves holding, as measured by the difference between the
interbank lending rates and the !OER rate, also supports the view that IOER drove the
decline in interbank lending. Although the relationship is similar for all banks, it is
clearest for foreign banks which, as we've seen, were especially tempted to accumulate
excess reserves. Particularly striking is the almost exact coincidence of the precipitous
decline in the opportunity cost of reserves coinciding with the introduction of IOER and
an equally precipitous, initial decline in interbank loans.

Bech et al. (2015) offer interesting insights concerning the combined effects on wholesale lending of the
fears raised by Lehman's failure and the Fed's IOER announcement.

'l

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VI. c. From Lender to Borrower of First Resort

The collapse of interbank lending created a further motive, beyond the return on
reserves itself, for banks to accumulate excess reserves, as banks that once routinely relied
on overnight unsecured loans to meet their liquidity needs discovered that, owing to the
substantial decline in the availability of fed funds, doing so was no longer prudent.
Because that decline at first caught many banks by surprise, its immediate effect was a
sharp spike, on October 7, 2008, in the fed funds rate, which rose to 2.97 percent, or
almost twice the Fed's target at the time. Banks adapted by raising their excess reserve
holdings so as to have sufficient precautiona1y reserves to cover those reserve needs that
they had previously met by borrowing federal funds.
As Gara Afonso, Anna Kovner, and Antoinette Schoar (2010, p. r) point out, until
these changes came about, the fed funds market had long served as "the most immediate
source ofliquidity for regulated banks in the U.S." Consequently any disruption of that
market could "lead to inadequate allocation of capital and lack of risk sharing between
banks." In extreme cases, they add, it might "even trigger bank runs." By paying IOER at
above-market rates, the Fed, which is supposed to serve as a lender oflast resort,
unwittingly became both a borrower of first resort and the agent of destruction of banks'
traditional, first-resort source of emergency funds.

VII. IOER and Retail Bank Lending

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VII. a. Lending Before and Since the Crisis

97
Between the week just before the Fed began paying interest on bank reserves,
when it reached its pre-crisis peak, and the third week of March 2009, when it reached its
post-crisis nadir, overall U.S. commercial bank lending declined from over $7.25 trillion to
about $6.5 trillion-a decline of $1.25 trillion. Although reduced real estate lending
accounted for the greatest part of this decline, other kinds of lending, including business
lending, also fell sharply.

Although lending has recovered to a considerable extent since the crisis, at least
relative to its pre-subprime boom trend, this recovery was painfully slow. Furthermore it
masks an enduring and substantial post-crisis decline in the ratio of overall bank lending
("loans and leases") to total bank deposits. Whereas total bank lending tended to match
total bank deposits in the years leading to the crisis, since then, and specifically since
IOER was introduced, it has declined to about So percent of deposits. Over that same
period, bank reserves, as a percentage of total bank deposits, have increased from trivial
levels to roughly 20 percent of bank deposits. In short, as a matter of simple balancesheet arithmetic, the rise in banks' holdings of (mainly) excess reserves has gone hand-inhand with a corresponding decline in bank lending.

VII. b. The Direct Influence ofiOER on Bank Lending

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98
But does this correspondence mean that IOER was actually responsible for the
decline in retail bank lending as a share of bank deposits? Many insist that IOER rates
have been too low, compared to the rates on commercial bank loans, to have had more
than a minor influence on bank lending. For example, Ben Bernanke and Donald Kohn
(2016) observe that, during the long interval when the IOER rate stood at 25 basis points,
"the only potential loans that would have been affected by the Fed's payment of interest
[on reserves] are those with risk-adjusted short-term returns between precisely zero and
one-quarter percent."
That view is, however, mistaken, on both empirical and theoretical grounds.
First of all, as we've seen, the growth in banks' excess reserve holdings was not an
inevitable response to growth in the Fed's balance sheet: banks are always materially
capable of reducing their excess reserve holdings, collectively as well as individually,
either by making loans or by buying securities. It follows that the existence of substantial
excess reserve balances is ipso{acto proof that the banks that acquired those reserves
considered them more desirable than any other assets they might have acquired.
Standard microeconomic theory suggests, furthermore, that in equilibrium all of a
banks' various assets should have, not the same marginal return, but the same marginal
net return. Consequently, in theory at least, for any bank that holds excess reserves, the
marginal net return on lending must not be any greater than the marginal return on such
reserves. That means in turn that, if the return on reserves goes up, total bank lending
must decline enough to once again make the marginal net return on loans the same as
the return on reserves. To put this another way, although reduced short-term lending,
and interbank lending especially, may be the first and most obvious consequence of an
increase in bank reserves' relative yield, the eventual consequences will also include some
reduction in longer-term bank lending.
Can this theory account for the apparent decline in lending as a share of deposits?
It can, provided one understands, first of all, that not all banks enjoy equally high gross
returns on lending. That fact is at least roughly reflected in different banks' net interest
margins: the difference between the interest they earn and the interest they pay on bank
deposits, expressed as a percentage of bank assets. Because bank deposit rates have
themselves been extremely low since the crisis, and are in many cases at zero, banks' net
interest margins supply a rough indication of their gross interest returns; and those
margins have in fact been considerably lower for the largest U.S. banks, and lower still for
foreign banks, than they have been for U.S. commercial banks as a whole. Whereas the
net interest margin for all U.S. commercial banks has steadily declined from not quite 4
percent in early 2010 to just over 3 percent in 2017, the margin for banks in New York,
which is home to the very largest banks, has been around 2 percent for most of that same
period, while that for foreign banks generally has generally been less than 1.5 percent.

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99
And it is, as we've seen, the very large domestic banks, as well as foreign bank branches,
that have been holding most of the outstanding excess reserves.

Even 150 basis points is many times 25 basis points. But that's still not the right
comparison, because there are substantial non-interest expenses involved in making
loans, whereas the only non-interest expense of holding Fed balances consists of FDIC
premiums assessed against a bank's total assets-and even that cost does not apply to
most foreign bank branches. ECB area bank operating expenses, for example, are equal to
about 6o percent of their interest income. And because borrowers sometimes default, and
banks must make allowances for such defaults, loan loss provisions further reduce the net
return on bank loans (Noizet 2016). As the next chart shows, those provisions reached a
peak of 3·7 percent of total bank assets at the beginning of 2010, from which they've
gradually fallen to their present level of 1.29 percent. Taking such losses as well as other
costs oflending into account, it's no longer at all difficult to understand how a modest
IOER rate might have made holding excess reserves seem more lucrative than granting a
loan at a considerably higher non-risk-adjusted rate.

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100
Nor is that all. Banks' net interest margins are a measure of the return on their
entire loan portfolios. But allowing that the demand schedule for bank loans is
downward-sloping, the return on a banks' marginal loan is necessarily lower than that on
its loan portfolio as a whole; and it's this marginal return, net of both the interest and the
non-interest expense associated with the marginal loan, that is supposed, in equilibrium,
to be no higher than the bank's net marginal return on other assets, including any excess
reserves it holds. Consequently, the mere existence of a positive difference between a
banks' net interest margin and the IOER rate, even after allowing for the noninterest cost
of loans, is perfectly consistent with the theory that banks' have found it more profitable
to accumulate excess reserves than to part with those reserves by lending more.
The diagram below illustrates the last point. In it, the blue line represents the
downward-sloping marginal revenue schedule for loans confronting the banking system,
while the horizontal grey line represents the IOER rate, here assumed to be wo basis
points. For simplicity, I ignore banks' noninterest expenses altogether, while assuming
that the Fed adjusts the total stock of reserves so as to keep total bank deposits constant.

In that case, assuming that they have $!0 trillion in deposits at their disposal, the
hanks will collectively lend $8 trillion, while maintaining $2 trillion in excess reserves. But
although the net return on the marginal loan is the same as the IOER rate, the banking
system net interest margin, represented here by the orange line, will necessarily be higher
than the IOER rate. Reducing the IOER rate to zero, on the other hand, encourages banks
to lend 100 percent of their deposits, instead of holding any excess reserves.'4

14

Alternatively, one can treat the horizontal axis in the diagram as representing real rather than nominal

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bank deposits, where changes in the IOER rate lead to changes in the deposit multiplier and therefore to
proportional changes in both nominal bank deposits and the price leveL

101
VJI. c. Excess Reserves and Bank Lending in Japan

Some authorities doubt that IOER accounts for U.S. banks' exceptional demand for
excess reserves, and the associated decline in bank lending, because the same phenomena
have occurred in other countries, and most notably in Japan, and did so even when banks'
reserve balances in those places bore no interest. As Kazua Ogawa (2005, p. 1) observes,
"Japanese banks have chronically held excess reserves since the late go's," with excess
reserves tending, as in the U.S. since October 2008, to rise pari passu with the Bank of
Japan's additions to the total reserve stock.
However, Kazua also observes that Japan is no exception to the rule that "reserve
supply does not necessarily automatically create a demand for reserves," and that Japan's
banks, no less than U.S. banks, "have their own motives for excess reserves." The motives
have, moreover, been more-or-less the same in both cases.
U.S. banks, as we've seen, accumulated excess reserves because the positive return
on those reserves was greater than the still-positive return on wholesale as well as some
retail loans. Japanese banks, in contrast, began hoarding reserves long before the Bank of
Japan began paying interest on reserves a month after the Fed's having done so, in
November 2008.
But as the U.S. case itself demonstrates, what matters isn't the absolute IOER rate,
but how that compares to rates on alternative uses of bank funds. In Japan before
November 2008, although the IOER rate was zero, the overnight uncollateralized call
rate-Japan's equivalent to the fed funds rate-had itself fallen to zero, making reserves
and call loans very close substitutes despite the fact that reserves bore no interest. The
fact that Japanese depositors became increasingly leery of bank failures in the gos finally
tipped the scale in favor of reserves, as Japanese banks gained a further incentive to
bolster their precautionary balances.
As can be seen in the pair of charts below, reproduced from Bowman, Gagnon, and
Leahy (2010, p. 32), so long as the Bank ofJapan paid no interest on banks' reserve
balances, Japanese banks accumulated excess reserves only after March 2001, when the
Bank of Japan, in initiating its Quantitative Easing Program, allowed the call rate itself to
fall to zero. When the BOJ ended that program five years later, while also increasing its

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Martin, McAndrews, and Skeie (2011) develop a more formal model from which they draw
conclusions similar to those arrived at by less formal means here. In particular, they find that "the key
determinant of bank lending is the difference between the return on {bank]loans and the opportunity cost
of making a loan," and that "banks lend up to the point where the marginal return on loans equals the
return on holding reserves." They also show that, once this point has been reached, further additions to the
supply of bank reserves have no effect on bank lending, and, in the presence of balance-sheet size related
costs, such as capital requirements and FDIC assessments, may even reduce it. This last point has obvious
implications for the likely effectiveness of the Fed's Large-Scale Asset purchase. Andolfatto (2015), using a
different model, reaches quite similar conclusions.

102
lending rate, the call rate again rose above zero, causing japan's banks to reduce their
excess reserve balances. Finally, in November 2008, by beginning another round of
Quantitative Easing, and reducing its lending rate to 30 basis points, the Bank of Japan
brought the call rate back down 10 basis points, while simultaneously beginning to pay
banks 10 basis points on their reserve balances. Consequently, Japanese banks once again
began accumulating excess reserves.' 5
\.0

Daily

o.a
0.7

0.6
0.5

0.4

1999

2000

2001

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

Tnllions of yen

40

Monthly

1999

2000

2001

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

200$

5
' For the purpose of paying interest on banks' reserve balances, the Bank ofJapan established its
Complementary Deposit Facility. Although that facility was originally supposed to expire on March 16,
2009, it has since been made permanent. Interestingly, since banks can only maintain excess reserves at the
facility, the BOJ paid interest on excess reserves only, and not on banks' required reserves. japan's lOER rate

remained positive untll January 2016, when the Bank of Japan introduced a ''three tier" arrangement for
Japanese banks' account balances with it, in which one tier pays a positive, one a zero, and one a negative
interest rate.

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103
In short, like the Fed after October zooS, the Bank of japan saw to it, intentionally
or not, that Japanese banks' excess reserve balances rose and fell in lockstep with changes
in the size of its balance sheet, which they would not have done had it maintained a
positive spread between the call rate and the rate it paid on excess reserves. According to
Ogawa's estimates, had Japan's call rate been z5 basis points rather than zero after zooo,
even with no improvement in Japanese banks' perceived financial health, banks'
subsequent demand for excess reserves might have been reduced by as much as 70
percent!
Thanks to the Bank of Japan's strategy, and in agreement with our own
understanding that the influence of IOER on bank lending will be greatest where bank
net interest margins are lowest, Japan's Quantitative Easing programs, instead of resulting
in more lending by Japanese banks, had just the opposite effect, as seen in the next chart:

While it doesn't contradict the claim that IOER can be a crucial determinant of
banks' willingness to accumulate excess reserves, Japan's experience does cast doubt on
the suggestion that a U.S. IOER rate of zero would have sufficed after zooS to have kept
banks there from hoarding excess reserves. Whether it would have depends on whether
other U.S. short-term rates, and the effective fed funds rate in particular, would have
remained above zero. If not, nothing short of a negative IOER rate would have served to
preserve a positive opportunity cost of reserve holding. Even so, a zero IOER rate would
have supplied less of an inducement for reserve hoarding than a positive one. More
importantly, as we shall see, Fed officials themselves were convinced that, had they
returned the U.S. IOER rate to zero, the effective fed funds rate, despite falling further,
would nevertheless have remained positive.
VII. d. IOER. Liquidity, and Bank Lending

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104
Besides directly reducing bank lending by encouraging banks-and large U.S.
banks and U.S. branches of foreign banks especially-to prefer, at the margin, acquiring
excess reserves to making bank loans, JOER has also reduced it indirectly, by depriving
those (mainly smaller) banks that have not been so inclined to accumulate excess reserves
of their traditional means of covering themselves against the risk of short-run reserve
shortages that additional lending entails. As the late Ronald McKinnon observed in a 2011
Wall Street journal Op-Ed,
Banks with good retail lending opportunities typically lend by opening credit lines
to nonbank customers. But these credit lines are open-ended in the sense that the
commercial borrower can choose when-and by how much-he will actually draw
on his credit line. This creates uncertainty for the bank in not knowing what its
future cash positions will be. An illiquid bank could be in trouble if its customers
simultaneously decided to draw down their credit lines.
Ordinarily, McKinnon continued, banks can cover their unexpected reserve shortfalls by
borrowing funds from other banks on the interbank market. However, if"large banks
with surplus reserves become loath to part with them for a derisory yield," while smaller
ones "cannot easily bid for funds at an interest rate significantly above the prevailing
interbank rate without inadvertently signaling that they might be in trouble," interbank
borrowing ceases to be an attractive alternative to maintaining higher excess reserve
cushions, even where the marginal return on reserves is less than that on loans.
The situation McKinnon describes is, of course, precisely the one that has
prevailed ever since October 2008.
VII. e. Other Constraints on Bank Lending

To insist that JOER contributed to the post-Lehman decline in bank lending, and
especially to the decline in lending as a share of total bank deposits, isn't to deny that
other developments also played a part in that decline. Most obviously, a decline in
overall loan demand was part of the story. But to suggest that it was such a decline rather
than IOER that mattered, as many in the banking industry seem inclined to do, is to erect
a false dichotomy: if banks reduced their loans while increasing their reserves, they did
so, not simply because lending became less lucrative, but because it became so relative to
the alternative of reserve hoarding. Had it not been for IOER, banks would have been far
less inclined to prefer reserves to low-yielding loans. IOER and reduced loan demand thus
worked together, like the blades of a scissor, to discourage banks from lending.
A shortage of bank capital might, on the other hand, have prevented banks from
increasing their loans despite the presence of both abundance of excess reserves and
favorable lending opportunities. As Huberto Ennis and Alexander Wolman (2011) explain,

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105
As a readily available source of funding, high levels of reserves provide flexibility to
a bank that is looking to expand its loan portfolio. However, loans (and risky
securities) are associated with higher capital requirements than reserves. A bank
that is holding reserves but is facing a binding capital constraint is thus unlikely to
engage in a sudden expansion of lending. As with deposits, raising capital quickly
can be costly. For this reason, even a bank that holds a high level of excess reserves
may not be able to take advantage of new lending (or investment) opportunities
(p. 276).
However, in their own study of this possibility, Ennis and Wolman find that, while many
banks were indeed capital constrained during the Fed's "first wave of reserve increases,"
by the last quarter of 2009, bank capital had recovered to the point where, of $510 billion
in reserves held by the biggest 100 banks, $485 billion were loanable. By the end of 2011,
finally, almost all of the reserves held by the same banks were loanable given existing
capital requirements. In separate study also looking at larger banks and BHCs, Jose
Berrospide and Rochelle Edge (2010) likewise found that changes in BHCs' capital ratios
had only modest effects on loan growth. Instead of worrying about capital, banks and
BHCs seemed more concerned about things like loan demand and risk (Alas, Berrospide
and Edge did not consider the possible influence of IOER.)
Nor does capital seem to have significantly constrained lending at the opposite
end of the banking spectrum, where banks must usually rely on retained earnings to build
capital. According to Jim Wilkinson and Jon Christensson (2011, pp. 43 and 46), who
investigate lending by community banks in the Tenth Federal Reserve District between
the start of 2001 and the end of 2009, programs established during the crisis for the
purpose of placing funds into those banks' capital accounts did so little to boost that
lending that it would have been "more effective for policymakers to give money directly
to small businesses in the form of grants or loans."

VIII. IOER and Monetary Policy
VIII. a. IOER and Tight Money in 2oo8-9

Having considered the bearing of IOER on various sorts of bank lending, we're
now equipped to consider how it influenced the course of the subprime recession and
subsequent recovery. In brief, besides undermining economic productivity by diverting
scarce savings from more to less productive uses, IOER contributed to both the recession
itself and the slow pace of the subsequent recovery by serving as the instrument by which
the Fed-whether wittingly or not-kept money too tight.

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106
Although there were clear signs of trouble in the subprime mortgage market
starting in early 2007, the recession to which those troubles eventually led didn't officially
begin until December 2007. As is true by definition of any officially-designated recession,
that one was heralded by a substantial decline in various measures of overall real
economic activity, and particularly in the growth rate of real GOP. that had been going on
for several months.
As is typically, though not necessarily, the case, the recession also involved a
similar, but even sharper, decline in nominal GOP, or total spending on goods and
services. From a peak growth rate of over 7 percent during the boom, nominal GOP
growth declined gradually to about 4·75 percent in the third quarter of 2007. lt then fell
precipitously, reaching a low just shy of minus 3.2 percent by the second quarter of 2009.
And although the growth rate of spending recovered considerably over the next year,
since mid-2010 it has never again reached 5 percent, and has often been less than 3
percent. In short, spending has never made up the ground it lost during the recession's
first year.

''

While the connection between reduced spending and recession isn't inevitable, it's
a strong one, for reasons that aren't difficult to grasp. For in order not to be accompanied
by some decline in real GOP, a decline in nominal GOP would have to be matched by a
proportional decline in prices, as measured by the GOP deflator. To the extent that it
isn't, because prices are "rigid" or "sticky" or for any other reason, real GDP must also
decline. In practice, a sharp and persistent decline in overall spending is bound to bring a
recession.
The volume of spending itself depends on the quantity of money, however one
chooses to measure it, and its velocity, which can be understood as an inverse measure of
the public's demand for money balances, expressed as a share of their total earnings. As
the next chart shows, although the velocity of M2 was growing at the beginning of 2006,

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107
by 2007 it was declining. That decline became increasingly rapid, and especially so after
Lehman Brothers failed. By mid-2009, M2 velocity was more than 11 percent lower than it
had been a year before. Although the quantity of Mz tended to increase as its velocity
declined, the increase fell persistently and increasingly short of what was needed to
maintain a steady growth rate of spending, let alone what it would have taken to restore
spending to its original trend path. Instead, that growth rate fell steadily until, during the
last quarter of 2008, it became negative.

In light of these statistics, it's clear in retrospect that monetary policy had been too
tight throughout 2007 and early zooS, and that this overtightening became especially
pronounced during the last quarter of zooS and the first quarters of 2009. Taking a 5
percent spending growth rate to represent the long-run trend, it's equally clear that
money remained too tight over the next several years to restore that spending growth
rate, let alone make up for the fallen level of spending relative to where it would have
been had the growth rate of spending never fallen below 5 percent.
The especially severe overtightening that followed Lehman's failure reflected the
FOMC's desire to maintain the 2. percent fed funds rate target then still in effect. That
target was, according to the committee's reckoning, consistent with meeting the Fed's
inflation target, whereas anything lower risked surpassing that target. Finding that its
subsequent emergency lending was undermining that chosen target, the Fed responded,
as we've seen, by implementing IOER dS a means for preventing any further "leakage" of
its emergency credits into the fed funds market. IOER thus became the chief instrument
by which the Fed aggravated, however inadvertently, the collapse in nominal spending
that had already been in progress, making the recession that much more severe.
Commenting on the Fed's action not long afterward, blogger David Beckworth (zooS)
went so far as to compare the Fed's mistake to the one it made in 1936-1937·

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Not long ago another blogger, Scott Sumner (2017), having the advantage of
hindsight, reached a verdict that was hardly less damning. ''The decision to adopt lOR,"
he writes (meaning, presumably, what we've labelled IOER), "helped to prevent the Fed
from achieving its policy goals, by making the Great Recession more severe than
otherwise." He continues,
The world would be a better place today if the Fed had never instituted its policy
of! OR in 2008. I really don't see how anyone can seriously dispute this claim. If
you want to dispute the claim, what specific way did lOR make the world a better
place? When the policy was adopted in 2008, the New York Fed explained it to the
public as a contractionary policy. Can anyone seriously argue that the world
would be worse off if monetary policy had been less contractionary in 2oo812? Why?
Fed officials were in fact aware of the economy's deteriorating state as they
prepared to begin paying banks to hold reserves; that deterioration is what convinced
them to finally reduce the federal funds rate target from 2 percent to 1.5 percent. Yet the
Fed still went ahead, the very next day, with its lOER plan. The Fed chose, in other words,
to ease monetary policy symbolically, while taking steps to prevent the reserves it was
creating from actually contributing to a further lowering of the effective funds rate. The
FOMC's next and final rate cut under what still appeared to be, but was in fact no longer,
its traditional monetary control regime, from 1.5 percent to 1 percent, was likewise largely
symbolic, for by then the fed funds market, considered as a market for interbank lending,
had more-or-less ceased to function.

FREEl~.

4

0
l008Q2

2009Q!

2008Q3

2009Q2

2009Q3

Thus far, at least, the Fed's experiment was proceeding according to plan. For
despite the economy's ongoing decline, that plan called not for loosening monetary policy
but for avoiding further loosening, along with the stimulus such loosening might provide,
by preventing growth in the Fed's balance sheet from encouraging additional bank

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109
lending. By December 2008, however, the Fed concluded that the economy needed to be
stimulated after all. The trouble was that achieving a stimulus in the Fed's new IOERbased regime was only barely possible in theory, and lamentably difficult in practice.
VIII. b. IOER and "Quantitative Easing"

The problem of course was that, so long as the IOER rate remained high relative to
other short-term rates, including the going fed funds rate, the Fed's asset purchases, no
matter how large, would tend to lead to almost equal growth in banks' excess reserve
holdings, and therefore to very little growth in either bank deposits or monetary
aggregates. That is, IOER would have the same effect during the Fed's rounds of QE as it
had beforehand, when the Fed's balance sheet was expanding, not as part of a deliberate
monetary stimulus program, but as the incidental consequence of its emergency lending.
If it's indeed true that "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but
expecting different results," then in expecting extra bank reserves to stimulate the
economy after 2009, using the same operating framework they relied upon to prevent
extra reserves from stimulating the economy following Lehman's collapse, Fed officials
were not playing with a full deck.
Small wonder then that, despite an almost 4.s-fold increase in the monetary base
6
between December 2008 and December 2014, bank deposits grew only about 6o percent.'
Although this outcome took many commentators by surprise-including more than a few
who feared that the Fed's asset purchases would lead to high, if not hyper, inflation-it
did so only because they hadn't grasped the implications of the Fed's IOER policy, and the
new operating framework it established.

6
The Fed's three rounds of Large Scale Asset Purchases have informally come to be known since as QE1,
QE2, and QE3. QE1, which ran from December 2008 to June 2010, added $2.1 trillion, mainly in MortgageBacked Securities (MBS), to the Fed's balance sheet. For QE2, which ran from November 2010 until june
2011, the Fed bought $6oo-billion worth of Treasury securities. QE3, finally, began in September 2012, and
consisted of an open-ended program of securities purchases, starting with $40 billion in MBS per month,
and supplemented, beginning in December 2012, with monthly purchases of another $45 billion in longterm Treasury securities. In all, between December 2008 and October 2014 the Fed purchased securities
worth not quite $4 trillion, or about 4·5 times its total assets just prior to the crisis.

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--------

--------

Fed officials, on the other hand, understood what they were up against. Indeed,
they even disliked the expression "Quantitative Easing" because it suggested,
misleadingly, that the Fed regarded LSAPs as a means for expanding the quantity of
money, and for giving a boost thereby to spending, prices, and employment. Instead, the
Fed hoped that its asset purchases might influence the real economy through other
channels. In particular, they appealed to the existence of a "portfolio balance" channel, in
which changes in nominal quantities, and in bank lending especially, played no essential
part. Instead, the Fed's asset purchases were supposed to boost real economic activity by
altering relative asset prices. ln particular, swapping bank reserves for long-term
securities was expected to promote investment by lowering long-term interest rates.
But whether there really is such a thing as a portfolio balance channel is a matter
of considerable controversy. Just before he left the Fed Bernanke, when asked how
confident he was in QE's effectiveness, famously replied that "The problem with QE is it
works in practice, but it doesn't work in theory (quoted in Harding 2014)." Though said in
jest, there was more than a little truth in Bernanke's remark-or in the last part of it at
any rate. And Bernanke knew it. As a 2014 Financial Times article explains, according to
theory that prevailed in the years before the crisis,' 7 so long as banks themselves are
indifferent between holding new excess reserves and trading them for other assets, as
they would be at the zero lower bound in the absence of IOER, and as they are if reserves
bear interest at or above the going market rate, the Fed's own asset purchases
should have no effects. All that happens is the central bank swaps one kind of
government debt-money-for another kind of government debt, in the form of a

17

[n particular, Eggcrtson and Woodward (2003).

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long-term Treasury bond. That can only make any difference if investors have a
strong preference for one kind of debt over the other (Harding 2014).
For the portfolio-balance channel to be relevant, it had to be the case, as Bernanke
himself explained in his 2012 Jackson Hole speech, that "different classes of financial
assets are not perfect substitutes in investors' portfolios" (Bernanke 2012; my emphasis).
Concerning this theory, Stephen Williamson (2017) of the St. Louis Fed supplies
what I believe to be the best, albeit very brief, assessment:
Basically, the idea is to think about QE for what it is-financial intermediation by
the central bank. If QE is to work, and for the better, the reason has to be that the
central bank can do a better job of turning long-maturity assets into shortmaturity assets than either the private sector, or the fiscal authority.
So regarded, the theoretical merits of QE-or rather, of LSAPs-doesn't seem especially
compelling.
But did QE at least work in practice, as Bernanke claimed it did? In the
aforementioned Jackson Hole speech, Bernanke went on to refer to statistical evidence
that the Fed's strategy had succeeded. But many other economists find this same
evidence far from convincing. Williamson, for example, considers it "pretty sketchy":
For the most part, the empirical work consists of event studies-isolate an
announcement window for a policy change, then look for movements in asset
prices in response. There's also some regression evidence, but essentially nothing
(as far as I know) in terms of structural econometric work, i.e. work that is explicit
about the theory in a way that allows us to quantify the effects (ibid.).
The positive findings, furthermore, generally concern QE's effects on bond yields
only, rather than on more important macroeconomic variables, such as inflation and
unemployment. As Mirco Balatti and his coauthors (2016, p. 3) quite properly observe, to
conclude that QE was "effective" merely because it altered bond yields is to toy with the
usual meaning of monetary policy effectiveness, by conflating a policy's success in
influencing an intermediate policy target with its success in achieving ultimate policy
goals. According to those authors' own assessment, while QE did indeed lower interest
rates, and boost equity prices, it otherwise "struggled to propel the macroeconomy" (ibid.,
p. 5). Nor is their finding all that surprising. After all, not long before, former vice-chair
Donald Kohn had reached a similar conclusion. "I think it's fair to say," Kohn remarked,
that "although [LSAPs] were effective to some extent, people-even the Fed-were
somewhat disappointed. It's been a slow recovery from a very deep recession" (quoted in
Harding 2014).'8

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' for thorough evaluation of QE, see Thornton (2015).

112
The Fed's post-crisis inability to achieve its desired inflation target offers striking
proof of the inadequacy of its new operating system, and especially so since January 2012,
when, for the sake of keeping the public's inflation expectations "firmly anchored," the
Fed announced an explicit inflation target, consisting of a 2 percent annual increase in
the Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) index (Board of Governors 2012). ln
making that announcement, the Board of Governors declared that "the inflation rate over
the longer run is primarily determined by monetary policy" (ibid.). That was certainly
true under the Fed's traditional operating system, as is evident in the pre-crisis behavior
of the PCE index, as shown in the chart below. During that time, for better or worse, the
Fed had no difficulty maintaining a PCE inflation rate just a little in excess of 2%, which
was then, according to many, the Fed's implicit inflation target.' 9 In contrast, since it
announced its explicit PCE target, with its new stuck-in-neutral operating system in
place, the Fed has failed to reach that target in every quarter save that of the
announcement itself-and has done so despite adding over one trillion dollars to banks'
reserve balances!

As the New York Times reported recently, although "the direct cost of mildly
undershooting the Fed's inflation target is low,"
What is worrisome is not the direct damage, but the fact that the Fed has missed
its (arbitrary) 2 percent target in the same direction-undershooting-year after
year. ... That in turn implies that the low-growth, low-inflation, low-interest rate
economy since 2008 isn't going anywhere. This would prove especially damaging

"For better or worse" because maintaining a steady inflation target at a time of rapid productivity growth
meant tolerating unusually rapid NGDP growth, which may have contributed to the subprime bubble. See
Borio and Lowe (2002).

•q

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113
if the economy ran into some negative shock; a lack of Fed credibility could leave it
less able to prevent a recession (Irwin 2017).
VIII. c. Stimulus without IOER?

The most important question concerning the Fed's approach to post-crisis
stimulus is, not whether it was at all successful, but whether another approach might
have been better. In particular, what would have happened had the Fed dispensed with
IOER while still expanding its balance sheet?
It happens that Fed officials themselves considered this very question as the Fed
was deciding, earlier in the summer of 2010, whether to renew the QEr asset purchases it
had tentatively ended that June. As Ben Bernanke (2o10b) reported in his Jackson Hole
speech that August, having contemplated "reducing the IOER rate to, say, ten basis points
or even to zero" as one of several alternatives to having the Fed buy more assets, he and
his colleagues concluded that
On the margin, a reduction in the IOER rate would provide banks with an
incentive to increase their lending to nonfinancial borrowers or to participants in
short-term money markets, reducing short-term interest rates further and possibly
leading to some expansion in money and credit aggregates. However, under
current circumstances, the effect of reducing the IOER rate on financial conditions
in isolation would likely be relatively small. The federal funds rate is currently
averaging between 15 and 20 basis points and would almost certainly remain
positive after the reduction in the IOER rate. Cutting the IOER rate even to zero
would be unlikely therefore to reduce the federal funds rate by more than 10 to 15
basis points. The effect on longer-term rates would probably be even less, although
that effect would depend in part on the signal that market participants took from
the action about the likely future course of policy.
These conclusions are striking for at least two reasons. They imply, first of all, that
Bernanke and his colleagues no longer believed, if they ever did, that IOER alone stood in
the way of having the fed funds rate decline to zero. No less significantly, by emphasizing
the likely interest-rate effects of eliminating IOER rather than the likely "expansion in
money and credit aggregates" to which that change would lead, they suggest that those
officials regarded a low- or no-IOER alternative as if it were just another way to take
advantage of a "portfolio-balance channel," instead of a means for putting the Fed's
traditional transmission mechanism back in gear. By thinking this way they could hardly
avoid dramatically underestimating the alternative policy's potential benefits. 20

"At least one Federal Reserve Board economist, Joseph Gagnon (2010) thought that the IOER rate should
be lowered nonetheless. In a July 2010 blog post he wrote that "the Fed should lower the interest rate it pays
on bank reserves to zero. This is a small step, as the current rate is only 0.25 percent, but there is no reason
to pay banks more than the rate paid by the closest substitute, short-term Treasury bills."

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114
To see why, consider again our diagrammatic representation of the influence of
IOER on bank lending:
IOER

The Fed's assessment mainly takes account of the movement along a given, downwardsloping loan demand schedule associated with a decline in the lOER rate. But recall that
that movement represents an equilibrium only assuming that the Fed withdraws reserves
from the banking system to an extent equal to the decline in the quantity of reserves
demanded following the rate reduction. Otherwise the banks will dispose of those same
unwanted reserves by exchanging them for other, interest-yielding assets, and will
continue doing so until deposits have grown to the point at which the quantity of reserves
demanded is again equal to the quantity supplied. The reserve-deposit multiplier will, in
other words, spring back to life. Its revival means that the overall volume of bank lending,
instead of merely increasing to the extent implied by a movement down a fixed loan
demand schedule, increases much further by virtue of a general increase in nominal
magnitudes, which entails a corresponding rightward-shift in the loan demand schedule.
To get some idea of how much even a partial revival of the money multiplier would
have mattered, consider that, over the decades prior to Lehman's failure, every dollar of
base money supported between 5 and 8 times as many dollars of bank lending, the higher
figure having been reached just before the crash. In contrast, by June 2010, mainly thanks
to !OER, the ratio had fallen to 3.38. Consequently, even assuming, very conservatively, a
post-Lehman base-money-to-loans multiplier of 5, the elimination of interest payments
on reserves in the summer of2o10 would, other things equal, have raised the equilibrium
value of bank lending by more than $3.2 trillion.

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Besides underestimating the extent to which ending IOER might boost bank
lending, Bernanke (2o10b) and his colleagues worried that it
could lead short-term money markets such as the federal funds market to become
much less liquid, as near-zero returns might induce many participants and
market-makers to exit. In normal times the Fed relies heavily on a well-functioning
federal funds market to implement monetary policy, so we would want to be
careful not to do permanent damage to that market.
Here the Fed's reasoning was not only incorrect, but disingenuous. If anything
prevented the fed funds market from functioning as it had "in normal times," abovemarket IOER was it! Although it's true that reducing the !OER rate to zero would have
eliminated the arbitrage opportunity that was responsible for most of the fed funds
lending that occurred while IOER was still in effect, as banks disposed of excess reserves
they no longer wished to hold. bringing their holdings back to minimal levels, "normal"
interbank lending would resume. In other words, what Fed otl!cials were weighing as
potential "damage" to the fed funds market was but a stage in the restoration of that
market's robust health.
Vlll. c. Canada's Counterexample

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At the time of the crisis the Bank of Canada operated a symmetrical corridor
system, in which the Bank of Canada's lending rate ("Bank rate") served as the channel's
upper bound, while the "deposit rate" it paid on banks' overnight balances-the
counterpart of the Fed's IOER rate-served as its lower bound. Until April21, 2009, these
upper and lower bounds were respectively set at 25 basis points above, and 25 points
below, the Bank's chosen overnight lending rate target. The Bank's !OER rate was
therefore a below-market rate, by design as well as in fact. As Canadian banks weren't
subject to any minimum reserve requirements, this arrangement encouraged them to
keep their overnight reserves at a bare minimum, typically equal to about C $25 million.

116
Between April 21, 2009 and june 1, 2010, in response to Canada's worsening
recession, the Bank of Canada switched briefly to a floor system, by setting both its target
and its deposit rate at 25 basis points, and thereby making banks indifferent between
holding overnight balances and lending them. At the same time, it provided banks with
an additional C $3 billion in excess reserves, which they duly kept at the Bank's standing
deposit facility.
CJ\ DoHan (MiLl

Had Fed officials been right in thinking that continued reserve creation, coupled
with above-market IOER, was a more reliable means for stimulating economic activity
than dispensing with banks' extraordinary demand for reserves would have been, the
Bank of Canada's chosen response to the crisis, with its meager and temporary boost to
banks' excess reserve holdings, must surely have been far less effective than the massive
and sustained increase in U.S. banks' excess reserve holdings overseen by the Fed. Yet, as
the figures below, reproduced from Stephen Williamson's blog, show, if anything the
opposite was true: Canadian real GDP and the Canadian price level both recovered
somewhat more rapidly than their U.S. counterparts from their spring 2009 nadirs. "As an
econometrician once told me," Williamson (2017) wryly observes in commenting on
them,
if! can't see it, it's probably not there. Sure, since Canada is small and is highly
integrated with the US economically, Fed policy will matter for Canadian
economic performance. But, if QE were so important, the fact that the US did it
and Canada did not should make some observable difference for relative
performance.

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117

IX. IOER and Credit Allocation
IX. a. Central banking versus Commercial Banking

As we've seen, although the total quantity of Fed reserve balances is mainly a
function of the size of the Fed's balance sheet, the quantity of excess reserves banks hold
ultimately depends on banks' demand for such reserves, as influenced by their yield
relative to other assets.
By using IOER to encourage banks to hold more excess reserves, the Fed has
dramatically altered its own role in the intermediation of scarce savings. Thanks to IOER,
bank reserves, which until the recent crisis made up only a fraction of a percent of total
bank deposits, are now equal to a fifth of those deposits. Bank lending to businesses,
farmers and consumers has, on the other hand, gone from roughly matching total bank
deposits to being equal to only four-fifths of those deposits. The Fed has thus made itself
responsible, not merely for regulating the nominal scale of deposit-based financial
intermediation in the U.S. economy, but for actually disposing of a substantial share of
the public's savings. As the chart below shows, relative to the assets held by the entire
U.S. commercial banking system, the Fed's holdings are now four times what they were
before the crisis.

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Were the Fed itself just another commercial bank, or a particularly well-managed
commercial bank, it might be expected to employ the public's savings at least as
efficiently as commercial banks themselves might, by directing them to uses offering
relatively high risk-adjusted returns." But the Fed is not a commercial but a central bank.
As such it was never intended to act as an efficient financial intermediary, whether by
22
directly competing with commercial banks or by having them serve as mere agents to it,
as they do to the extent that they keep substantial excess reserve balances instead of
other interest-earning assets. Unlike commercial banks a central bank's purpose is to
secure macroeconomic stability and to otherwise attend to the interests of the public at
large, rather than to those of its nominal owners.
The Fed's unique responsibilities have as their counterpart unique operating
principles that differ greatly from those appropriate to commercial banks, including
guidelines concerning both the sort of assets it should invest in, and the extent of its
overall involvement in credit allocation. A relatively recent statement of these guidelines
can be found in a 2002 Federal Reserve System Study Group report on "Alternative
Instruments for System Operations." Among other things the report states that as a
public entity the Fed should "manage its portfolio to be adequately compensated for
risks" while also maintaining "sufficient liquidity in its portfolio to conduct potentially
large actions on short notice."
Until1966 these principles were met by limiting the Fed's open-market purchases
to ''Treasuries only," meaning short-term Treasury securities. However, in that year
Congress amended the Federal Reserve Act to temporarily allow the Fed to purchase any
fully-guaranteed agency securities, and in 1968 that change was made permanent
(Haltom and Sharp 2014).
The Fed was also supposed to "structure its portfolio and undertake its activities so
as to minimize their effect on relative asset values and credit allocation within the private
sector (Board of Governors 2002)." This last rule, the same report continues,
is consistent with well-supported doctrines in the economics literature: In general,
market price mechanisms allocate resources most effectively when undistorted by
government actions, and market-directed resource allocation fosters long-run
economic growth. The truth of these doctrines also has been borne out by much
hard experience, both domestic and international, with varying levels of
governmental intervention in the market process (p. 1-2).

"Ideally, this would mean high risk-adjusted returns. That implicit and explicit guarantees encourage at
least some actual commercial banks to engage in excessively risky lending is of course an all-too-notorious
fact.

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According to the FOMC's original1968 guidelines concerning them, even the Fed's
agency security purchases were "not designed to support individual sectors of the market
or to channel funds into issues of particular agencies."23
IX. b. IOER and Financial Repression

Because the Fed's own portfolio choices are limited, and especially because it
doesn't extend credit to nonfinancial firms or individuals, it can't be expected to employ
savings as efficiently or productively as commercial banks can. For that reason it is only
reasonable that it should be expected to intrude as little as possible on "market-directed
resource allocation" and, specifically, that it should avoid having banks hold
unnecessarily large balances with it. Indeed, those central banks that do otherwise are
generally condemned for engaging in what economists call "financial repression,"
meaning practices that "prevent the financial intermediaries of an economy from
functioning at their full capacity," thereby interfering with the efficient allocation of
credit and impairing economic growth (Ito 2009). 24
Yet, as we've seen, by paying JOER at above-market rates while generating trillions
of dollars in additional reserve balances, the Fed has curtailed "market-directed resource
allocation" by a corresponding amount. Instead of being market-directed, the resources
represented by commercial banks' excess reserve balances have instead been directed by
the Fed towards those entities whose securities it purchased during several rounds of
Quantitative Easing.
Some may wonder whether paying banks to accumulate excess reserves really has
the same, oppressive effects as imposing high reserve requirements might. If holding
reserves pays more than other uses of funds, then isn't it also efficient for banks to hold
reserves instead of acquiring other assets? The answer is that it would be efficient only if
the Fed's relatively high IOER rates reflected its own capacity to employ funds more
productively than private-market lenders. But the Fed's ability to pay above-market IOER
rates is due, not to its being an unusually efficient intermediary, but to the seigniorage it

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''According to Renee Haltom and Robert Sharp (2014, pp. 6-7). during the December 2008 FOMC meeting
held after QE1 bad been announced, then Richmond Fed President jeffrey Lacker observed that that plan
appeared inconsistent with the guidelines in question, and particularly with the Fed's press release stating
that the purchases were intended "to reduce the cost and increase the availability of credit for the purchases
of houses, which in turn should support housing markets and foster improved conditions in financial
markets more generally." In january 2009, when the FOMC voted to suspend the guidelines indefinitely,
Lacker alone dissented (Appelbaum 2013).
4
' According to Ito (2009, p. 430), common examples of financially repressive policies include "interest rate
ceilings, liquidity ratio requirements, high bank reserve requirements, capital controls, restrictions on
market entry into the financial sector, credit ceilings or restrictions on directions of credit allocation, and
government ownership or domination of banks."
While high minimum reserve requirements and the use of relatively high lOER rates to induce
banks to accumulate excess reserves both alter the direction of credit allocation, high reserve requirements
also tend to enhance governments' seigniorage revenues, while high IOER rates may not serve that purpose.

120
earns on its non-interest-bearing notes and on non-interest-bearing balances kept with it,
which it can use to cross-subsidize bank reserves. Furthermore, because the Fed doesn't
practice mark-to-market accounting, it doesn't have to provide for unrealized portfolio
losses. Consequently, it is able to finance relatively high IOER rates in part by assuming
greater risks, including the substantial duration risk it took on by acquiring long-term
Treasury and mortgage-backed securities.
Finally, to gain a more complete appreciation of the similar real consequences of
above-market IOER and high mandatory reserve requirements, suppose, first, that
instead of paying banks to hoard reserves the Fed achieved a similarly high reserve ratio
by imposing a continuously-enforced 20-percent reserve requirement against all
commercial bank deposits. Taken alone that step would lead to a severe contraction in
nominal bank lending and bank deposits and, ultimately, to a corresponding decline in
the price level. In the resulting equilibrium, the Fed's real asset holdings would have
grown, in both absolute terms and relative to commercial bank assets, to roughly the
same extent as has happened in fact, though in a manner that would leave no doubt
concerning the "repression" involved, consisting of a reallocation of savings from
commercial banks to the Fed, and from commercial bank lending to bolstering the
markets for Fed-favored securities.
Next suppose that, instead of tolerating deflation, the Fed accompanied its new 20
percent reserve requirement with a plan to expand its balance sheet just enough to allow
banks to meet the new requirement without having to shrink their own balance sheets.
Although the new plan would avoid major changes in nominal magnitudes apart from a
substantial increase in nominal bank reserves, it would, according to standard quantitytheory reasoning, result in the same long-run real outcomes. That is, it would lead to a
new steady-state that was just as financially repressive as the one to which the
deflationary alternative led.
The Fed's actual IOER policy is essentially the same as this last alternative, the sole
difference being its use of subsidized IOER payments instead of high mandatory reserve
requirements to dramatically boost banks' demand for reserves.
IX. c. IOER and the Productivity Slowdown

One of the most disconcerting features of the post-crisis recovery has been the
"great productivity slowdown" that has accompanied it (Kravis 2017). Since the start of the
recession in late 2007, labor productivity has grown at an average annual rate of just 1.1
percent-far below the 2.3 percent average growth rate between 1947 and 2007. Many
reasons have been offered for the slowdown, including a deficient supply of bank credit.
As one recent IMF study put it, "the combination of pre-existing firm-level financial
fragilities and tightening credit conditions made an important contribution to the postcrisis productivity slowdown" (Duval, Hong, and Timmer 2017). Such findings are not all
that surprising in light of the understanding that many central banks, and the Fed

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especially, have embraced novel monetary policy frameworks that are highly financially
repressive, and also in light of the vast theoretical and empirical literature linking such
financially-repressive policies to economic underdevelopment. 25 As Robert Barro (2016)
has observed regarding the U.S. case, "The dramatic rise in high-powered money was
good for the Fed's profits (most of which went to the U.S. Treasury). However, none of
this was likely to contribute to productivity growth."
IX d. Digression on Narrow Banking

While I've portrayed above-market IOER, and the very high bank reserve ratios it
has led to, as financially repressive, some proponents of"narrow banking" (e.g., Kay 2009,
pp. 51ff) might well regard them favorably, as a step toward their ideaL According to that
ideal, instead of using deposits, and insured retail deposits especially, to fund any bank
lending, banks ought to back such deposits entirely with "genuinely safe liquid assets"
(ibid., p. 58), consisting mainly, if not solely, of government securities. To the extent that
a deposit-taking bank took part in retail lending, it would have to fund such lending with
its own capital or by borrowing on wholesale markets. In more aggressive narrow banking
proposals, narrow banks would be altogether prohibited from engaging in retail lending,
which would instead become the exclusively prerogative of separate, non-deposit-taking
firms (Bossone 2002, p. 8).
Although this isn't the place for anything like a thorough-going assessment of
narrow banking proposals, some remarks concerning the apparent inconsistency of such
proposals with lesson drawn from writings pointing to the financially repressive effects of
policies favoring high bank reserve ratios appears to be in order.
How to account for these radically different perspectives? The basic answer is that,
while students of financial repression take for granted the existence of a synergistic
relation between deposit taking on one hand and lending on the other, proponents of
narrow banking instead view the marriage of these two activities as an undesirable and
unnecessary consequence of government deposit guarantees. As John Kay (2009, p. 53)
puts it, "In a free market, narrow banking would have emerged spontaneously and
immediately... The outcome of market forces has been suppressed, and the natural
outcome of market forces-narrow banking-should be imposed by regulation."
Having written extensively on the history of banking, and especially on episodes of
more-or-less unregulated banking, I can say with considerable confidence, and with all
due respect to Mr. Kay and like-minded proponents of narrow banking, that there isn't a
shred of truth in his assertion. While government deposit guarantees, whether explicit or
implicit, are a relatively recent innovation, the marriage of deposit taking and lending is
as old as banking itself. Institutions resembling narrow banks have, in contrast, taken

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See, in particular, Roubini and Sala-i-Martin (1992), De Gregorio and Guidotti (1995), and Levine (1997).

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shape in the past only with the help of government interventions aimed at suppressing
"broader" rivals. 26
What's more, deposit-taking and loan-making have long been married for very
good reasons, so that forcing them to separate would in fact be quite costly, just as the
financial repression literature suggests. As Biagio Bossone (2002) explains in his excellent
critical assessment of narrow banking proposals,
the benefits of banking cannot be fully appreciated if either the asset or the
liability side of the bank balance sheet is considered in isolation. A synergistic
benefit results when banks use their stable deposit base to finance timeconsuming production technologies that yield goods and services (p. 14).
Retail lending and deposit taking are therefore more efficiently supplied jointly
than as the separate products of separate institutions. This is especially obvious when
bank loans take the form of"lines of credit" granted to borrowers-that is, of deposit
balances they may draw upon at any time, with interest assessed only on withdrawn
sums. 27 Narrow banking, by ending this efficient joint production, would increase the cost
and reduce the extent of private sector lending (ibid., pp. 15-16.)
X. IOER and Monetary Policy Normalization
X. a. The Fed's Plan

Ever since the Fed began its large-scale asset purchases, Fed officials have been
promising that, once recovery from the crisis was complete, they would begin a process of
monetary policy "normalization." In particular, they promised to eventually reduce the
size of the Fed's balance sheet, though they only announced a specific plan for doing so
relatively recently. According to that plan, and as seen in the figure below, the Fed plans
to shed $1.5 trillion assets between now and 2022, bringing its balance sheet to $3 trillion,
or to about 15 percent of projected 2022 GDP (Board of Governors 2017a).
But while "normalization" has always been understood to involve restoring the
Fed's balance sheet to something closer to its pre-crisis size, in another, more important
respect, the Fed's understanding of the term has changed over time. Whereas at first the
Fed was also inclined to get around at last to establishing a "corridor" system of monetary
control, it now appears inclined to keep its post-crisis "leaky floor" system in place.
Somewhere along the way, in other words, the Fed quietly deemed its current monetary
control mechanism the "new normal."

' 6 See, inter alia, Selgin and White (1987), Selgin (2011), and Selgin (2012).
practice of granting lines of credit itself dates back to the early tS'h century, when the Royal Bank of
Scotland introduced what became known in Scotland as the "cash credit" system.
' 7 The

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Thus in February 2010, when he first testified before Congress on what was then
still referred to as the Fed's "exit strategy," Ben Bernanke told Congress that the Fed
"anticipates that it will eventually return to an operating framework with much lower
reserve balances than at present and with the federal funds rate as the operating target for
policy" (Bernanke 201oa). In a footnote to his written testimony, Bernanke (ibid.) made it
clear that he had a corridor system in mind:
The authority to pay interest on reserves is likely to be an important component of
the future operating framework for monetary policy. For example, one approach is
for the Federal Reserve to bracket its target for the federal funds rate with the
discount rate above and the interest rate on excess reserves below. Under this socalled corridor system, the ability of banks to borrow at the discount rate would
tend to limit upward spikes in the federal funds rate, and the ability of banks to
earn interest at the excess reserves rate would tend to contain downward
movements (n9).
Although Bernanke adds, in the same note, that "other approaches are also
possible," and that the Fed "has ample time to consider the best long-run framework for
policy implementation," the Fed was evidently inclined to return to an arrangement
differing only modestly from its pre-crisis system. Apart from being reasonably consistent
with a literal understanding of "normalization," that plan would have realized, as a floor
system could not, Bernanke's hope that the Fed would eventually settle on an operating
framework that would not "impose costs and distortions on the banking system."
That Fed officials have since become keen on sticking with a floor-type monetary
control arrangement, based on an above-market IOER rate, is evident both from their
plan to establish a long-run balance sheet roughly three times as large, relative to GOP, as
its pre-crisis counterpart, and also from several of Janet Yellen's June 2017 remarks to the
press. Although Yellen (2017a) claimed then that the Fed still had plenty of time left to
decide on its eventual operating framework, she went on to "point out" that
our current system is working well and has some important advantages. In
particular, it's simple and efficient to operate, does not require active management
of the supply of reserves, and, most importantly, provides good control over the
federal funds rate and effective transmission of changes in the federal funds rate to
broader money market rates. And because our current system is likely compatible
with the much smaller quantity of reserves, our plan for gradually reducing our
balance sheet does not constrain the Committee's future options for how to
implement monetary policy (pp. s-6).

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Yellen observed, furthermore, that "changing the target range for the federal funds rate"
would remain the Fed's "primary means of adjusting the stance of monetary policy" and
that the Fed did not intend to treat the Fed's balance sheet as "an active tool for monetary
policy in normal times" (my emphasis). Taking that last remark to rule out, not just
Quantitative Easing, but also ordinary open-market operations, as means for influencing

124
the fed funds rate, Yellen's statement implies that the Fed now intends to stick to the
present system.
And why shouldn't it? First, because, despite what Yellen says, the current
arrangement has never worked well. True, it has succeeded in keeping the effective fed
funds rate within the Fed's "target range." But in a system in which fed funds activity is
almost all devoted to arbitraging the difference between the upper and lower limits of
that range, such success is nugatory. The Fed's new framework has also succeeded in the
sense that changes in the IOER rate have led to like changes in other short term rates. But
as has been noted, these achievements refer to the Fed's intermediate policy objectives
only, rather than to its ultimate policy goals. Assessed in light of those ultimate goals, and
particularly in light of the Fed's ongoing failure to achieve its stated inflation target, the
Fed's new operating framework can only be judged a failure.
Second, and just as importantly, so long as the current operating framework
remains in effect, the Fed may not be able to shrink its balance sheet to any great extent
without falling even further short of its announced inflation target.
X. b. A Recipe for Failure

The Fed's plan for balance-sheet reduction is unlikely to succeed because it calls
for both a gradual reduction in the nominal quantity of bank reserves and the
maintenance, if not the strengthening, of banks' extraordinary appetite for such reserves.

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Regarding the last point, most Fed officials take for granted a long-run "normal"
fed funds rate level of about 3 percent, reflecting an assumed normal real rate-"r-star," in
Fedspeak-of one percent, plus the Fed's 2 percent inflation target. Having the effective
fed funds rate approach 3 percent is therefore also part of their normalization strategy. To
judge by FOMC members' most recent projections, as shown in the chart below, that
goal, or something close, will be reached within the next several years, which is to say,
while the Fed is also in the process of shrinking its balance sheet.

125

Under the present, floor-type regime, however, raising the effective fed funds rate
means raising the IOER rate. "During normalization," the Board's plan states, "the Federal
Reserve intends to move the federal funds rate into the target range set by the FOMC
primarily by adjusting the interest rate it pays on excess reserve balances." Allowing for
the "leakiness" of the IOER rate floor, the IOER will actually have to be raised to a level
somewhat above 3 percent, and perhaps not far from twice its present setting. The trouble
is that, even allowing that the Fed's long-run estimate of r-star is correct, and that either
raising IOER to above 3 percent or shrinking the Fed's balance sheet according to a
predetermined schedule would not result in monetary overtightening, combining the two
is very likely to have just that consequence. 28

"'

8

In fact there is considerable disagreement, even within the Fed, concerning the likelihood that r-star (the

equilibrium real federal funds rate) will return to one percent within the next several years. For example, in
their recent San Francisco Fed study )ens Christensen and Glenn Rudebusch (2017b) use Treasury InflationProtected Securities (TIPS) prices to arrive at what they consider to be especially reliable r-star estimates
and projections. They conclude that as of December 2016 r-star stood close to zero, and that it "is more
likely than not to remain near its current low for the foreseeable future" (ibid., p. 27). Elsewhere the same
authors (Christensen and Rudebusch 2017a) observe that "For policymakers and researchers, the
equilibrium interest rate provides a neutral benchmark to calibrate the stance of monetary policy: Monetary
policy is expansionary if the short-term real interest rate lies below the equilibrium rate and contractionary
if it lies above. Therefore, determining a good estimate of the equilibrium real rate has been at the center of
recent policy debates."
On increasing IOER rates as a means of monetary tightening, see Bowman, Gagnon, and Leahy
(2010). Among other things these authors note, citing the Norges Bank's experience, that according to
theory, "the scale of balances outstanding need not damp the effectiveness of tightening using the interest

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rate on reserves as a policy tool."

126
A rudimentary but still informative way of understanding this last conclusion
involves an exercise in textbook macroeconomics and, more specifically, an appeal to the
quantity theory of money and the related idea of monetary neutrality. According to the
quantity theory, holding the real demand for various goods and assets constant, a onetime change in the nominal quantity of money should lead to a proportional change in
prices and related nominal variables, but no change in the real equilibrium quantity of
any good or asset. According to this understanding, holding banks' real demand for
excess reserves unchanged, a halving of the size of the Fed's balance sheet, and in the
nominal stock of bank reserves, should eventually result in a halving of the price level,
which will leave banks with the same real quantity of excess reserves they started with.
The banking system reserve ratio and base-money multiplier should also be unchanged. 29
As the Fed has already been struggling to achieve its inflation target, the most
likely consequence of its choosing to proceed with its balance sheet reduction plan will be
a still more serious shortfall of the inflation rate from its target. Yellen's July (2oqb)
testimony makes it clear that such an outcome could cause the Fed to reconsider its plan.
The FOMC, she said, was
prepared to resume reinvestments if a material deterioration in the economic
outlook were to warrant a sizable reduction in the federal funds rate. More
generally, the committee would be prepared to use its full range of tools, including
altering the size and composition of its balance sheet, if future economic
conditions were to warrant a more accommodative monetary policy than can be
achieved solely by reducing the federal funds rate.
Because it may well take a "sizeable" reduction in the IOER rate (and accompanying
reduction in the fed funds rate target) to keep the Fed's planned net asset sales from
causing disinflation, Yellen's statement amounts to a warning that, should the economic
situation deteriorate, the Fed's balance-sheet reduction plan might come to a screeching
halt.
X. c. A Plea for Genuine Normalization

For all the reasons just described, the Fed's present "normalization" plan is
unlikely to result in any substantial change from the status quo. First and most
worrisomely, it will leave the current floor-type monetary control framework in place.
Second, because it is likely to result in disinflation, the plan could well be abandoned

9
' David Andolfatto informs me that, for IOER at least equal to the rate of return on Treasury securities, the
quantity-theory result holds in his own particular formal representation (Andolfatto 2015) of monetary
policy since 2008, under the condition that banks do not consider excess reserves and the securities that the
Fed plans to dispose of to he perfect substitutes. Since excess reserves are uniquely free of duration risk, the
latter assumption almost certainly holds in practice.

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before the Fed has shrunk substantially. Indeed, if the Fed sticks to its planned IOER rate
increases, it could end up buying assets yet again to combat that disinflation.
Yet a genuine normalization of monetary policy, including both a substantial
reduction of the Fed's balance sheet and the substitution of a "corridor" system for the
present leaky floor arrangement, is possible; and it needn't involve any unwanted
disinflation. To achieve it, the Fed must do two things. First and most crucially, it must
plan, not to raise, but to lower the IOER rate, relative to market rates if not absolutely,
enough to eventually make holding excess reserves less attractive to banks than disposing
of them through either wholesale or retail lending. Second, the Fed must reduce the size
of its balance sheet, and thereby reduce the outstanding supply of reserve balances,
enough to offset the decline in banks' demand for excess reserve balances that will take
place as the difference between the IOER rate and other short-term rates declines, and
especially as it becomes negative.
As the IOER rate moves from being an above-market "leaky floor" rate to
becoming a below-market "corridor" rate, the volumes of both ordinary bank lending and
bank lending and borrowing on the fed funds market will increase. Eventually, instead of
being a mere conduit for bank-nonbank interest rate arbitrage, the fed funds market will
resume again its role as a "first resort" source of borrowed bank liquidity; and the fed
funds rate will once again become sensitive to modest changes to the available quantity of
bank reserves. The Fed can then return to its pre-crisis practice of setting a single-valued
fed funds rate target, to be reached by means of open-market security purchases and
sales. The only difference between the new arrangement and the Fed's actual, pre-crisis
system will be that in the new one, the IOER rate will serve as an above-zero fed funds
rate lower bound, as well as a means for compensating banks for holding required
reserves and clearing balances. IOER will, in other words, serve only the purposes it was
meant to serve when the 2006 Financial Services Regulatory Relief Act was passed,
instead of serving purposes far removed from what those responsible for that legislation
had intended.
Though genuine normalization of monetary policy is achievable, that doesn't mean
it will be easy. On the contrary: the transition back to normal will pose difficult
challenges. During it, for example, the effective fed funds rate will cease for a time to be a
reliable indicator of the stance of monetary policy. The possibility is one Ben Bernanke
(201oa) addressed when he outlined the Fed's original "exit" strategy back in February
2010. To allow for it, he said, the Fed might temporarily switch to
communicating the stance of policy in terms of another operating target, such as
an alternative short-term interest rate. In particular, it is possible that the Federal
Reserve could for a time use the interest rate paid on reserves, in combination with
targets for reserve quantities, as a guide to its policy stance, while simultaneously
monitoring a range of market rates (p. 10).

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Nor will it be an easy matter for the Fed to coordinate its net asset sales with
reductions in its IOER rate so as to avoid either inflation or deflation. "If the amount of
sales ordered by the FOMC was too small," Larry Wall (2017) observes, "the resulting
excessive stimulation would likely result in higher inflation. If the amount of sales was too
large, the resulting excessive tightness could cause the economy to go into a recession."
Wall is, of course, entirely correct. However, the problem he describes is to some degree
common to any plan that calls for adjustments to the size of the Fed's balance sheet,
including the current one. One difference is that, unlike the plan proposed here, the Fed's
present plan does not even acknowledge the need to coordinate its planned balance sheet
changes with offsetting IOER rate settings!
Another difference, however, does make the plan proposed here especially
challenging. Unlike the Fed's plan, it involves a regime switch, consisting of a move from
a floor system to a corridor system, which will occur as the IOER rate ceases to be an
above-market rate and instead becomes a slightly below-market one. The change might
well involve a revival of wholesale bank lending too sudden to be offset by Fed asset sales
without upsetting the markets for those assets. Fortunately, the Fed has a ready-made
solution to this problem, in the shape of the Term Deposit Facility it established in early
2017 "to facilitate the conduct of monetary policy by providing a tool that may be used to
manage the aggregate quantity of reserve balances held by depository institutions"
(Central Bank Central2017). The term deposit auctions undertaken by that facility serve,
like Fed asset sales, to drain reserves from the banking system for the term of the
auctioned deposits, but do so without disrupting asset markets. The Fed can therefore use
such auctions to maintain monetary control as it passes from a floor to a corridor regime,
without having to depart from a gradual balance-sheet reduction schedule.
In any case, the Fed shouldn't be allowed to treat the difficulty of switching fi·om
the present monetary policy framework to a corridor system as an excuse for perpetuating
the former. As I've tried to show in some detail, the existing monetary control framework
is both extremely unreliable and extremely inefficient. It also involves substantial
departures from long-established principles of central banking and from the intent of the
2006 law granting the Fed the right to pay interest on bank reserves. In short, whether
the Fed wishes to abandon the current system or not, Congress should compel it to do so,
and to thereby conform again to the spirit, as well as to the letter, of the statutes that
govern it.

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